“To fight a bull when you are scared…that is something.”
—from “La Fiesta Brava” by Barnaby Conrad
He belonged on a ranch somewhere, the agent felt. Or did he? Riggs wore a faded striped shirt, stone-washed jeans, and snakeskin boots. He seemed oddly at home there with the rest of them amid the stunted palms, the bamboo, and other such furnishings. It was all arranged to look like a South Seas village—Hollywood style.
“What’d you say?”
“Come on, lighten up, Rigger―I knew you had a problem, that’s all. Everybody knew.”
The two wrinkled veterans shared a patio table at the trendy restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was located out near the Los Angeles Country Club. The busboy took away their lunch plates, and the waitress, her uniform a skimpy red-flowered sarong, brought more coffee. The clatter of the lunchtime crowd overwhelmed Hawaiian strains from the restaurant’s speaker system.
“It don’t pay to gossip about somebody’s bad luck,” Riggs said.
The balding agent resented the criticism. He was a pale inside man, and made it a point to always appear confidant. He avoided being envious of the summer-tanned young people who occupied the tables around Riggs and himself. The agent knew well this city’s population with its varied competitive mix. Young people from all around the country flocked here―the fortunate, the used, and the abused.
He smiled. “Call it a social faux pas,” the agent said. Riggs hadn’t worked on a picture in years. That was a given. “Anyway, I’m glad to see you’re looking so fit.” (It had been something of a shock when he bumped into Riggs in the parking lot. At least he hadn’t blabbed “Golly, I thought you were dead.”)
“I feel fine,” Riggs said as he watched the blond-haired girl dressed in a pink jumpsuit at the next table attack her diet salad. She scarfed it up as if she feared any moment the plate might be snatched away. She managed to prattle on between bites while her tender-faced male companion listened and sipped iced tea from a glass the size of a martini shaker.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” the agent said, trying to recall a vague and long-ago tragedy. In his younger years Riggs had been one of the wild ones. There was a screw-up on a dangerous scene, a stunt buddy killed. Riggs himself suffered critical injuries. He never fully recovered and ended up a has-been, the kind of loser people avoided. It could happen overnight. The movie business was full of them. It was difficult when you confronted one of these hapless people. You shared a few meaningless comments, thought up some excuse, and ran like hell. In Hollywood land everyone was paranoid about the slightest hint of failure. There was always the chance it might rub off.
“I’ve cleaned up my act,” Riggs said. “One god-awful morning I saw that the demented character in the mirror was really me. I decided then and there it was time to cork the bottle.”
“A wise decision.”
“Not exactly, I was dying. And I didn’t want to go out a drunkard. Call it pride. Amazing how low down you can get and still be a vain SOB.”
The candid admission was unexpected. Truth was rare in an agent’s litigious world. But something in those nerveless green eyes, the rough chin scar, and the not altogether straight nose suggested a lot more than Riggs had told him. Part of it might be a weary sort of gratitude that he had managed to survive it all. Riggs did appear healthy for his years. He seemed to project a fateful acceptance of the way his life had turned out. He seemed nothing like the volatile drunkard the agent had glimpsed on occasion around town. It might be that Riggs didn’t give a damn one way or the other. Most people wanted things: pleasure, wealth, status—immortality. It’s what they struggled for.
Why not? Maybe Riggs was clean. Only, experience had taught the agent that druggies and boozers were the worst damn liars.
“The greatest show on earth,” Riggs mumbled.
“Something I heard an alcoholic say once about d.t.’s.”
“Yeah, that’s how he described them.”
Where was this kind of talk headed?
“Withdrawals, it’s like a funhouse run by the devil.”
The agent shrugged, not the least bit empathetic. The thirsts and dissipations of clients
had cost him money.
Riggs’ expression altered. He appeared angry, impatient. “It’s something you never forget, that’s all. But I’m in good shape now and looking for work.”
“You—you’re not serious?”
Riggs relaxed in the wicker chair and crossed his legs. And the agent heard himself speak before he considered the consequences—a rare slip.
“I just happen to know about a gig. I learned about it this morning. The guys who could bring it off seem to be tied up. Only, there’s a distance problem. This turkey is being filmed down in southern Mexico.”
Riggs affected an offhand interest. “Who’s the director?”
“His name is Jaekyll. He’s doing some kind of digging-up-the-Mayan-ruins adventure. You know him?”
“Yeah, I remember Jaekyll did a few thrillers on the cheap.”
“I don’t know who bankrolled this picture, but nothing is cheap anymore.”
“You got that right. There was a time when it could be done, hustle up the finances and shoot feature stuff for not a helluva lot of money. Even Marty with Ernie Borgnine―Academy Awards for that one when it came out. They made it on a few hundred thousand, I heard.”
“My god―do you know how long ago that was? Some people might think it a crime being old enough to remember things like that.”
The Polynesian-garbed waitress returned and refilled their coffee cups.
“So, what’s the stunt?”
“Jaekyll is looking for a crash driver.”
Riggs stared at the blond girl, so enthusiastic and self-involved as she unloaded her troubles on the pretty boy. “Tell me about it.”
The agent roused himself. He had seen the gesture as an act of mercy when he invited Riggs to lunch. What was the harm in talking about a line of work where Riggs had once excelled? “Way I heard, Jaekyll thought up a radical chase scene. He wants two cars in a flat-out ass-hauling run up a mountain road—the lead car to end up in a blazing wreck.”
“That stuff can be faked.”
“Jaekyll plans to shoot it from a ’copter, zoom in for close-ups of the driver as he jumps from the car before it goes over the cliff. He was firm about it, they told me.”
“Hell, they can do that stuff on computers now, or use a dummy.”
“Jaekyll is old-fashioned. You two would probably get along. No cop-out process effects. He thinks it will help sell the picture if it gets promoted that the stunts are real.”
“Like the good ole days.”
“You got it. And fire―the car and the driver on fire.”
The agent, ever alert to the reactions of others, noticed the slight involuntary reflex in Riggs.
“Well, sure―you gotta have the incendiary stuff up there on the screen. It plays to the popcorn crowd.”
In a momentary lull, both turned to observe the girl at the next table still in full voice. It was bargain therapy for her.
“You want to do it, Rigger?” It was a tease. He suspected Riggs knew that. The agent regretted the question.
“My dues are paid up, believe it or not. I’ve still got all my equipment.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Back off,” Riggs growled. “I did some of the best car stunts in this crazy business. Or don’t you remember?”
“How long ago, for god’s sake?”
“Well, let’s see―back when wranglers took horse falls at Corrigan’s for pocket money, I guess.”
The agent didn’t get it, then remembered “Crash” Corrigan’s ranch in the Simi Valley. It had been a popular movie location―a frontier town where hundreds of two-reel westerns were cranked out. They featured movie cowboys like Johnny Mack Brown, William Boyd, Bob Steele, Wild Bill Elliott―and John Wayne before he got picked for the Ringo character in John Ford’s epic Stagecoach. That one made “Duke” a star.
“You remember those days, don’t you?” Riggs said. “When I was a kid, Saturday afternoons we headed down to the old Gaiety theatre in my hometown. We got to see a cartoon, world news, previews, and a double feature―all for a dime.”
“Maybe you could apply as a tour guide at the Hollywood Wax Museum, that’s what I think.”
Riggs wasn’t amused. “Wire Jaekyll that you found him a driver. Easy ten percent. I haven’t had an agent since Lester died.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding. Or nuts.”
“That’s an industry requisite, isn’t it?”
The agent drank some coffee, pondered for a moment. “Ever hear of a Spanish matador named Manolete?”
“I guess so. I remember seeing a bullfight poster of the guy somewhere.”
“You could take a lesson from him. He came out of retirement to prove he was still the best against a new crowd-pleaser named Dominguín. They fought on the same afternoon in Linares, Spain.”
“Yeah, Ava Gardner had the hots for that Dominguín, as I recall. But what the hell’s bullfighting got to do with what we’re talking about?”
“I don’t know―it just occurred to me.”
Riggs’ green eyes narrowed. He sighed, reached to his shirt pocket as if for a cigarette—then ceased with an apparent ex-smoker’s frustration.
“Manolete drew a mean bastard that afternoon, a black Miura bull, one of the ‘bulls of death’ as they were called. His name was Islero.”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
“In the army, I did a hitch at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The base was forty miles from Nogales on the Mexican border. Some army buddies were crazy about the bullfights. They talked about it, shared books on the subject all the time. Aficionados, they called themselves. I went along with them to the corridas in Nogales a few times.”
“You gonna fix me up on that car trick for Jaekyll?”
The agent ignored the question. “I think you should listen to this, Rigger. Like I was saying, Manolete had planned to retire. He was rich and could afford the good life every matador dreams of―his own rancho breeding bulls for the ring, more time for the women. But his ego did him in. The word got around; people called Dominguín superior. Manolete needed to prove them wrong.
“On that last day he performed like the great matador he truly was. Manolete executed the sweeping veronicas with his cape in the classic style. He stood firm and never backed away. He made a clean finish with the sword, but the bull hooked at the last second and drove the right horn deep into the matador’s groin. It was the worst kind of wound, and he died early the next morning. They had killed one another, Manolete and Islero.”
Riggs shrugged. “I was never rich—and bulls belong on farms servicing cows. But that’s only an opinion.”
“Okay, we’ll skip that part. But you and Manolete might have more in common than you think.”
“You’re quite the little philosopher, worse than some bartenders I know.”
The two of them sat there under the palm leaf umbrella. The noon sun was hot in the restaurant patio. The talkative blond girl in the pink jumpsuit and her attentive friend had gone. Riggs appeared distracted, even depressed. Did they still haunt him, the agent wondered―those alcoholic demons?
He had to admit it—he wasn’t comfortable around guys like Riggs. It was too much like one might feel if he stumbled into a bad neighborhood. He didn’t care much for rodeos either, or auto racing, or any other extreme sport. Daredevils were a breed apart.
Some days, even for agents, the line between reality and illusion was hard to place. It was the business he was in. Riggs had been the best at the stunt work he did. That was a long time ago. Maybe in the end―after years getting busted up in action films―after the wild parties and the hangovers―all that mattered was to salvage whatever was left. A man might get along somehow. But not Riggs. A guy like him—he would have to take one more chance to reclaim some portion of his self-respect.
“What do you think?”
An expression that seemed both grim and challenging appeared on the rugged face of the ex-stuntman—and sad.
“Do it, and stop jerking me around. I need the money.”