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THE JOHN LENNON AFFAIR
A Neil Gulliver & Stevie Marriner Novel
BY ROBERT S. LEVINSON

Chapter Excerpt

The Chelsea on West Twenty-Third between Seventh and Eighth was the only hotel in New York I knew by name and reputation. It was the place where rock stars on the rise and on the decline could create trouble and be ignored by the management, unlike the legendary "Riot House" on the Sunset Strip in LA, where the management was less tolerant and routinely called the cops whenever some bona fide rock star or a rolling clone tossed a TV set or the remains of room service, including the cart, onto the boulevard from his eight hundred dollar a day suite. 

The bohemian landmark showed all of its seventy-five years and then some. There was something imposing about its street parade of balconied windows, something intimidating about the history I smelled inside, like Dylan tucked in a corner of his room writing "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

I had to knock on the counter to get the attention of the desk clerk, who was following the news about John on a small-screen black-and-white TV on the shelf underneath the open-faced room key cabinet. 

He wheeled around on his stool with an expression that showed he was not happy about being disturbed. I put him in his early to mid-thirties, with penetrating black eyes he'd accented with a thick coat of mascara on his eyelashes and a slash under his lower lids. A tumbleweed of hair dyed black vying for attention with collagen-impregnated lips painted a rich shade of green. Clearly, no one had told him Halloween was last month.

I apologized for the interruption and that seemed to satisfy him, but not his need to spray me with the kind of once-over that advertised its intention. A twice-over kind of once-over like he was looking for a place on me to plant a few bills and had just the place in mind. He gave me an immense smile of confirmation that showed off a mouthful of misshapen teeth and unredeemable decay.

I let him see I wasn't interested, but he flexed his muscles and did some shoulder exercises in case he hadn't read me right. Let me see what I was missing under his too tight Freddie Mercury tee shirt that seemed ready to burst at the seams.

"I'm Neil Gulliver," I said. "Called you last night from LA and reserved a room?"

He shrugged his biceps and ducked under the counter, came up in a few seconds with a red-covered registry book that he laid on the front counter. Flipped open to a page marked with a pencil on a string.

His fingers, a garden of dirty, bitten nails, trailed  downward until--

"Yeah. Here. Gulliver. Two nights, right?" His voice sounded more like a squeal, had a strong English inflection. "And only you for the bedsprings?"

"Maybe three. It depends. A single, yes."

"A bloody shame," he said, and made a clucking sound.

He took the pencil and wrote down something in the registry book before returning it beneath the counter, then moved a registration card in front of me. I took the pen he offered and began filling out the card.

"How you plan on squaring, Neil Gulliver what called us last night from Los Angeles?"

"Sorry?"

"Cash or plastic? You ain't known to the establishment, so the policy is no personal checks. Especially since you're also traveling light." He indicated my backpack and gym bag. "Too easy to disappear, a popular trick hereabouts on more'n one occasion, I might say, so no offense."

"No problem. None taken." I pulled out my billfold from a hip pocket, found the Visa card the Sentinel had issued to me, and passed it across the counter.

I knew I shouldn't be using it, given I'd been fired by Easy Ryder and was no longer on the Sentinel payroll, but I was owed a last check by the paper and told myself I'd watch it, make sure I didn't spend more than I was owed.

The clerk adjusted his tone again and wondered, "What band you with, mate?"

Making small talk while we did the paperwork.

I shook my head.

"I'm a writer."

He made a face that said that was less than he'd hoped for, but acceptable.

"Judging by your look, so much the clean-cut and proper lad, I'll guess middle-of-the-road. I'd wager you figure to become the next big pop sensation, right?"

"Not that kind of writer. Not a songwriter. A reporter, I meant. For a newspaper back in LA."

"Oh."

He was about to lose interest in me, until I pointed at the TV and said, "He's the reason I'm in New York."

He sat upright and studied me with renewed interest.

"Terrible about himself," the clerk said.

"Terrible," I agreed.

"Put my hands on the bloody bugger what done him, I'd give him a what-for to put him outside Heaven for eternity and a day...You can quote me, you're doing a write-up."

"No, I didn't come to work. To pay my last respects."

His eyes took a curious turn.

"You saying you knew him? You knew John Lennon?"

"Not as well as he knew us," I said.

He had to think about that, but quickly began nodding an emphatic Yes.

"So say we all, mate," he said. "So say we all."

"He said that twice, you hear him?" The question came from behind me. "You said that twice, Nigey."

"Say it a million times more before I'm through," the clerk called past my left shoulder.

I glanced that way and found a bear of a man looking back. Six feet and then some, dressed in a khaki fatigue jacket and pants, hands stuffed in his pockets, speckled gray and white buskers cap parked at a jaunty angle on a full head of blond hair, Ray-Bans hiding his eyes, and a scruffy blond beard otherwise disguising a puffy face.

He cupped a hand behind an ear.

"What's that you said, Nigey?"

"Said I'd say it a million times before I'm through."

The bear aimed an accusatory finger.

"You said that twice," he announced gleefully, then to me, "He said that twice."

"I heard him," I said, pivoting around for a better look at him.

"What's that?"

"I heard him."

Pointing the finger at me now.

"You said that twice."

And he raised his chin and hooted at the ceiling like he'd just invented humor.

Nigey said, "You have to forgive Harry. He was a true mate of the guv. That's his way of mourning."

"Afternoon and night, too," Harry said, duplicating the voice of Groucho Marx. "I knew John was dying to get back to woik, but he got carried away this time."

His mouth was open, as if he planned to say more, but instead of words, a gasping sigh worked its way up and out of his throat, and his cheeks dropped out of his half moon smile.

"Fuck," he said after a moment and patted himself down searching for the cigarette pack he found in a pouch pocket of the fatigue jacket. He replaced the pack and placed the cigarette in his left palm, then slapped the inside of his left arm.

The cigarette flew between his lips.

He removed it for study, held it out like both he and the cigarette were waiting for applause, and with a modest nod parked it in a corner of his mouth.

He said, "Anybody got a light?"

Without pausing to think, I answered, "The people at General Electric."

I could feel his eyes dissecting me from behind his shades before he began nodding energetically and let the smile back. He plucked the cigarette from his mouth and stashed it behind an ear.

"Good one," Harry said. "You remind me of me."

"Is that a compliment?"

"Not necessarily," he said, cackling once more. "In fact, it's a line from the movie True Grit. And the book. John Wayne. The Duke as Rooster Cogburn. He won an Oscar, pretty impressive seeing as how Oscar Levant never won a John Wayne."

He repeated, "You remind me of me," sounding like the Duke and walking like him as he ambled forward, extending his right hand.

  I took it and said, "Neil Gulliver."

  "Harry Nilsson," he said.

  I looked up at him.

  "That Harry Nilsson?"

  He surveyed the lobby.

  It was old and run down, the walls stained by time and the smoke of a thousand joints.

  Framed concert posters hanging askew.

  A smattering of framed photos of musicians, lots of faces familiar to me from Rolling Stone, some of the photos autographed.

  "I don't see anyone else around," Harry said, except for her, and she's far more likely to be Brigitte Nielsen than Harry Nilsson."

  His voice was guttural, showing years of abuse, and I would have bet no longer able to produce the lyric falsetto of his earliest albums.

  He waved at the girl hanging back several feet from us by a lobby armchair that may have been previously owned by Good Will Industries.

She looked fifteen or sixteen years old and spaced out, dead eyes and a face full of puss pimples, some picked clean and scabbed over. Close-cropped bottle red hair styled in a Mixmaster. A black summer coat too big for her that reached the tops of her cowboy boots, the leather peeling and broken in some places.

  "No, I don't think she's Brigitte Nielsen, either. Or Brigitte Bardot, for that matter. For any matter. Not that it matters."

  The girl held up a blue Bic lighter for Harry to see.

  He excused himself and stepped over to her, moved the cigarette from his ear to his mouth, and let her light it. Dug into his pocket for a roll of bills and peeled off what looked from here to be two twenties.

  They exchanged words and then he was back, telling me, "She wanted to know what she had to do for it and I told her she had to go home."

  "Doesn't look like she's leaving."

  "They never do," Harry said, forlornly, almost like he was reliving a bad memory, until he shrugged his shoulders, took a deep drag and let the smoke escape from a corner of his mouth.

  "Careful what else you say," Nigey called over. "The bloke's a reporter in from Los Angeles, because of John."

  "John's dead," Harry said, "and to think that for all these years everyone thought it was Paul."

  "Not to do a story," I said.

  "Oh?" Harry eased his Ban-Rays an inch down on his nose and peered over them. "You just flew in from Los Angeles and boy are your arms tired, but not for a story?"

  Sounding like Groucho again.

  "Needed to come here to pay my respects," I said. "Had to be."

  "Let it be," Harry said.

  Released more smoke.

  Pushed the sunglasses back up the bridge of his nose.

  "I'm heading over to the Dakota," he said. "We can go together."


Excerpted from The John Lennon Affair by Robert S. Levinson. Copyright© 2001 by Robert S. Levinson. Excerpted by permission of Forge Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  

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