With a Twist
by Lenny Levine
Lenny Levine has a BA in Speech and Theater. He has written songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. He has also performed with the improvisational comedy group War Babies. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cairn, The Dirty Goat, The Griffin, The Jabberwock Review, RiverSedge, and Westview.
Whenever Elliot Greene and his wife Bernice drove in to Westwood to catch a movie, they always stopped on their way back to Malibu for a drink and a late dinner at Le Gran Bifteck on Lindbrook Drive. The steaks were excellent there, and the martinis, as mixed by Steve the bartender, were the best in the world. At least according to Elliot, who'd had many martinis in many places all over said world.
Bernice drank only white wine spritzers, so she had to take his word for it. After 30 years of marriage, she was used to taking his word for a lot of things, which he expressed freely and virtually nonstop.
"What a dumb movie," he said, as he handed the valet the keys to their Lexus. "I mean, who did they think they were fooling? I saw everything coming a mile away."
"You did?" she said. "Everything?"
"Just about. I spotted the FBI agent right off the bat. It was obvious."
Elliot, a large, florid man who outweighed his diminutive wife by a good hundred pounds, pulled open the heavy oak door, and they stepped inside the restaurant. It was crowded tonight with people standing around near the entrance, and they could see ahead of them that all the tables were full.
"Shit," said Elliot.
Alex Beaufort, the maître d' and part-owner of the place, looking natty as usual in a three-piece suit, his silver mane coiffed to perfection, spotted them and came over apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mr. Greene," he said. "For some reason, we got busy on a Wednesday night. It'll be forty-five minutes, if you can wait."
Elliot frowned in the direction of the bustling dining room. "No can do, Alex," he said. "I've got an early flight tomorrow. We'll just skip dinner and settle for the martinis." He turned and steered Bernice toward the bar area.
She didn't object, although she was hungry. It would've been futile anyway. She'd grab something from the fridge when they got home.
"Aren't you going to ask me how I spotted the FBI agent?" he said, as they entered the bar.
"Okay," she replied dutifully, "how did you spot him?"
He chuckled. "It was because he was unimportant. Whenever a character doesn't seem to matter, like in this case, the production assistant, you know it's gotta mean something. As soon as the FBI chief said they had a mole working inside the TV quiz show staff, I knew it was him. Did you notice you didn't see him again after he said that one line early on?"
Bernice didn't reply, since most of his questions were rhetorical.
"No, he was gone from the story until the so-called surprise ending. You've gotta look out for those unimportant characters, especially the ones that only show up near the beginning."
Here in the bar it was quieter and not as crowded. They hoisted themselves onto the plush leather bar stools. "But you don't look at things that way, do you?" he mused. "You only think in linear terms; you've got no imagination. That's probably why you're a scientist."
This was a dig at what she'd been doing for the past eight years. After their sons Andrew and Toby had grown up and moved on, she'd gone back to school and gotten her doctorate in biochemistry. Now she was part of a research team at a pharmaceutical lab.
To him, as senior account executive for Rogers-McAllister, the largest advertising agency in the US, it was of no significance. His only interest in her work seemed to be in making cracks like the last one.
She ignored it. "When I watch a movie," she said, "I don't want to guess the ending. I don't mind waiting to see how it turns out."
He slapped his hand on the bar, making her wince. "You just proved my point."
"Hey there, folks, how's it goin'?"
Steve Tillman, mixicologist extraordinaire, moved toward them, drying his hands on a towel. He was in his late thirties, tanned, with blond-tipped hair and a hint of rakishness in his smile. "Martini and a white wine spritzer?" he asked, looking from one to the other.
"Stefano, my man!" Elliot exclaimed. "Of course, one of your fabulous martinis! Why else would I patronize a dump like this?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Steve, winking at Bernice. "Maybe to make me jealous that you've got such a beautiful wife."
Bernice looked down, her face reddening. Elliot just laughed.
"Yeah, right. Say, have you seen that movie, Final Question?"
"No, not yet. But I heard it's supposed to be good."
"You heard wrong. We just came from it, and it's a turkey."
"Really? What did you think, Mrs. G.?"
"I liked it," she said softly.
"Proves my point," said Elliot. "Now, come on, man. Every moment I spend un-martini-ed is a moment wasted."
"Hold on," said Steve. "First, there's a white wine spritzer we have to see to. How about it, Mrs. G.? We've got a nice house Chardonnay tonight."
"That sounds great."
"Comin' right up," he said, as he moved down the bar.
"You realize, asking Steve to make a wine spritzer is like hiring Picasso to paint your bathroom, don't you?" Elliot said.
Steve returned with the spritzer and placed it in front of her. Then he began the martini.
"See what he's using? Cadenhead's Old Raj gin," Elliot pointed out to Bernice, as Steve pulled a bottle off the shelf. "And Noilly Pratt vermouth. The drink might've been named for Martini and Rossi, but Noilly Pratt still makes the best vermouth."
Bernice nodded, having heard this before.
"He's using a six-to-one ratio; that's another thing that sets it apart. And he never shakes it, just stirs. That James Bond line about 'shaken, not stirred' is a load of crap. Right, Steve?"
"That's the truth, Mr. G. Actually, before James Bond, there was Nick Charles in The Thin Man. He said, 'A dry martini you always shake to waltz time.'"
"Another load of crap."
"Somerset Maugham, he got it right." Steve gently swizzled the ingredients and the crushed ice. "According to him, when a martini is stirred, the molecules lie sensuously, one on top of the other."
He glanced up. Then he brought out a chilled glass from under the bar.
"Ahh!" Elliot sighed, as he watched the wondrous liquid pouring through the strainer into the glass. "And we're not gonna spoil it with a vulgar olive," he said. "All it needs is a twist for the subtle finish."
Steve reached behind him into the jar of lemon peels. He plucked one out and attempted his signature move, flipping it in the air with one hand and snatching it with the other, but this time he was a little off. He fumbled it and needed two hands to recover.
"Gotta work on my form," he said sheepishly, as he gave the lemon rind a twist, laid it lightly on the drink, and presented it to Elliot.
"Thank you, Steven, my man." He traced his finger lovingly around the edge of the glass before taking that first sip. "I guarantee you, I won't find a martini like this in Vegas tomorrow. Those morons don't know squat about martinis."
"Going to Vegas, Mr. G.?"
"Yep, first thing in the morning. Major deal for the agency, if I can pull it off. In fact, it'd be earth-shattering." He put the glass to his lips.
"Heaven!" he proclaimed.
After that martini and one more for the road, they were back in the Lexus and tooling up the Pacific Coast Highway. Bernice was always a little apprehensive about Elliot's driving under these conditions, especially on an empty stomach, but there was no choice. To him, the idea of sitting in the passenger seat while she drove would be like an eagle hitching a ride on the back of a pigeon.
"By Sunday, if it goes according to plan," he told her, "Garland Advertising's biggest client will belong to Rogers-McAllister."
Part of the "plan," she was sure, involved high-priced call girls and Elliot in the company of one of his young female associates, the one he kept ensconced in Las Vegas. Or he might import the one he kept in San Francisco, if he thought she'd be more impressive. Or the one he kept in Chicago, or New York, or Tokyo.
"You ever heard of Ambrose Technologies?" he asked her.
She never had.
"One third of all computer and electronics advertising is for companies owned by them. It took a lot of sub rosa wheeling and dealing to set this up, but after I work my magic on their CEO, we're gonna get the whole ball of wax."
"That sounds great," she said. "And, actually, we've got something pretty exciting going on too, at the lab. We've developed a new class of synthetic calcium channel blockers."
"Yeah," he said abstractly. Then, "You know, another thing about that stupid movie. Contestant number three turns out to be one of the terrorists? Hello. I knew that twenty minutes before they got there. I don't know, the film industry must think we're idiots."
He turned the Lexus onto Big Rock Drive, and they climbed high into the hills overlooking Malibu, finally arriving at the massive electronic gates that led to the house. As they drove through, she thought about how this 20,000-square-foot mansion wasn't so much a place to live for Elliot as it was conquered territory. Similar to the way he regarded her.
She didn't stop at the fridge after all because she'd lost her appetite, so she followed him upstairs to their bedroom. At least they still slept in the same bedroom, although that's all they did there, on a king-size bed that afforded plenty of room to avoid contact.
Elliot may have mumbled "good night" into his pillow as he turned over and faced away from her, but it was too muffled to hear. She lay on her side for a moment and stared through the darkness, across the bed at his massive shape.
"You know, Elliot," she said, "it wasn't right for you to make me sign that prenup before we got married, just because your family had money and mine didn't. While you were out screwing other women, I was home raising your children. For over thirty years I saw to your every whim, even though you have no respect for me or anything I do. If we ever got divorced, I'd be left with nothing; and it gives you sadistic pleasure to have that power over me. You rub my nose in it in countless ways. It's not fair."
"Mmff," he muttered.
"You also aren't as observant as you think. You picked up on that stuff in the movie, but you didn't pick up on Steve, did you? You didn't notice what was going on between us."
He slowly turned over and faced her.
"Listen," he said crankily, "I've gotta get up early tomorrow. What are you talking about?"
"That thing he said about the molecules lying sensuously, one on top of the other; that was for my benefit. Steve and I have been having an affair."
She couldn't see his face that well in the dark, but she could make out the contemptuous expression on it.
"Oh, please," he scoffed.
"You don't believe me? I'm a fine-looking woman for someone turning fifty, even if you don't think so. I work out, take care of myself, and I've still got a real hot body. At least, Steve likes it. We've had sex right here on this bed. Many times."
He made a derisive sound. "You're making it up."
"Am I? That would require an imagination, which I don't have, remember? And I'll tell you what else you didn't notice: when he flipped the lemon rind and fumbled it. He's never done that before, has he?"
"So what?" Elliot said. "Always a first time."
"Not this time. He fumbled it on purpose, to cover it up for a moment with his other hand so he could make the switch."
Now Elliot propped himself up on one elbow and stared at her. "Make the switch to what?"
"I'll get to it. You didn't pay much attention in the car when I said our lab had synthesized a new class of calcium channel blockers, because you never pay attention to anything I say. Do you know what calcium channel blockers are?"
"Some kind of blood pressure medication, right?"
"They're very tiny doses of poison. That's what all blood pressure meds are, essentially. Some are even generated from curare. They decrease the contraction of the heart muscle by deadening it slightly, or they slow down the conduction of electrical activity within the heart by blocking the calcium channel. But I won't bore you with the technical stuff. The main thing is that it's brand new and there's no test out there that can detect it. And that a couple of weeks ago I snuck a lemon rind into the lab and saturated it. And that we were just waiting for the opportunity, and it finally came tonight.
"He loves me, Elliot. He says I'm an amazing woman. As for you, within the next few hours, you'll experience heart failure. I'll wake up tomorrow and be shocked to find my husband lying dead beside me. You can choose to believe it or not; it won't matter."
She rolled onto her other side and faced away from him.
"Good night," she said over her shoulder. "Sweet dreams."
The next afternoon, just before five o'clock, Bernice drove her Prius up Encinal Canyon Road, north of Malibu, looking for the turnoff into the woods. She spotted it and pulled off, driving far enough in until she was no longer visible from the road. Then she stopped and waited.
In a few minutes, another Prius pulled in behind her. Alex Beaufort got out, not wearing his maître d' suit, but a golf shirt and chinos. His silver hair still looked perfect, but Bernice made sure to muss it thoroughly after he climbed into the passenger seat and they kissed feverishly.
"It's over," he said, his eyes alive with excitement. "The hit man was waiting in his hotel room. I don't know the details, but . . ."
She shut his mouth with her kisses. "I don't want to know the details."
"I love you so much," he whispered.
"I love you too."
They kissed again, long and deep.
"And even better," she said, "he was going there to steal Garland Advertising's biggest client. When the police find that out, that's where they'll put their focus."
"God, I don't think I can bear staying away from you for the next six months. It'll be endless."
"Ohh, for me too, but we'll make up for it." She smiled at him. "You want to hear something funny? He wouldn't speak to me at all this morning before he left. It was because I told him last night that I'd laced the twist in his martini with poison. After that, he couldn't sleep a wink."
Alex stared at her. Then he cracked up laughing. "Bernice," he said, "you're an amazing woman."
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