Authors: Elmore Leonard
Daredevil Dennis Lenahan has brought his act to the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino in Tunica, Mississippi—diving off an eighty-foot ladder into nine feet of water for the amusement of gamblers, gangsters, and luscious belles. His riskiest feat, however, was witnessing a Dixie-style mob execution while atop his diving platform. Robert Taylor saw the hit also. A blues-loving Detroit hustler touring the Southland in a black Jaguar, Taylor's got his own secret agenda re the "Cornbread Cosa Nostra," and he wants Dennis in on the game. But there's a lot more in Robert Taylor's pocket than a photo of his lynched great-grandfather. And high-diver Dennis could be about to take a long, fatal fall—right into a mess of hoop skirts, Civil War playacting . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed possible.
Take a high diver who witnesses a murder from his perch 80 feet above a Mississippi casino. Add a cooler-than-thou con artist from Detroit who's out to take over the Dixie mafia's lucrative Gulf Coast drug business. Throw in a crooked deputy sheriff and an honest state cop. Put them all in costume along with a bunch of other "reenactors" bent on refighting an important Civil War battle, season with plenty of historic detail, and you've got all the classic ingredients of an Elmore Leonard novel--except for drama, suspense, or mystery, that is. This is a rib-tickler in the Carl Hiaasen/Dave Barry tradition rather than the kind of thriller Leonard wrote before Hollywood discovered him. As the author himself explains, his intent was to entertain himself by gathering an odd assortment of characters, building a story as they bump heads, and seeing what happens. And as usual, he carries it off with style, wit, and brio. Readers will be casting the inevitable movie in their heads (Samuel L. Jackson is a lock for Robert, who glides into town in a flashy Jag and gets the action going) as they chuckle their way to the last hilarious page.
The high quality of this polished, entertaining production comes as no surprise, as Leonard (Out of Sight; Get Shorty; etc.) is one of the most highly esteemed crime writers working today and Muller one of the most seasoned audiobook performers. The story centers on Dennis Lenahan, a high diver who lands a job performing at the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino in Tunica, Miss., but finds himself in hot water in the midst of an organized crime power struggle. As befits a Leonard novel, the proceedings are peppered by an interesting cast of characters making do on the fringes of conventional society. Muller ably portrays their many eccentricities and has the rare knack for performing the parts of the opposite sex in a way that sounds completely natural. He also captures the discerning, jazzman cool of Detroit gangster Robert Taylor; the thick, adenoidal twang of various members of the Dixie Mafia; and the comically ostentatious boastings of the hotel's resident celebrity, a former pitcher named Charlie who claims to have played in the 1984 World Series. The tension between them all builds toward a climactic Civil War reenactment, and listeners will find themselves alternately amused and intrigued by the many turns Leonard is able to muster.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
THE HIGH DIVER would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that's what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder. The tank itself was twenty-two feet across and the water in it never more than nine feet deep. Dennis said from that high up you want to come out of your dive to enter the water feet first, your hands at the last moment protecting your privates and your butt squeezed tight, or it was like getting a 40,000-gallon enema.
When he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they'd put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn't it like really dangerous? Dennis would tell them you could break your back if you didn't kill yourself, but the rush you got was worth it. These summertime girls loved daredevils, even ones twice their age. It kept Dennis going off that perch eighty feet in the air and going out for beers after to tell stories. Once in a while he'd fall in love for the summer, or part of it.
The past few years Dennis had been putting on one-man shows during the week. Then for Saturday and Sunday he'd bring in a couple of young divers when he could to join him in a repertoire of comedy dives they called "dillies," the three of them acting nutty as they went off from different levels and hit the water at the same time. It meant dirt-cheap motel rooms during the summer and sleeping in the setup truck between gigs, a way of life Dennis the high diver had to accept if he wanted to perform. What he couldn't take anymore, finally, were the amusement parks, the tiresome pizzazz, the smells, the colored lights, rides going round and round to that calliope sound forever.
What he did as a plan of escape was call resort hotels in South Florida and tell whoever would listen he was Dennis
, a professional exhibition diver who had performed in major diving shows all over the world, including the cliffs of Acapulco. What he proposed, he'd dive into their swimming pool from the top of the hotel or off his eighty-foot ladder twice a day as a special attraction.
They'd say, "Leave your number," and never call back They'd say, "Yeah, right," and hang up.
One of them told him, "The pool's only five feet deep, and Dennis said no problem, he knew a guy in New Orleans went off from twenty-nine feet into twelve inches of water. A pool five feet deep? Dennis was sure they could work something out.
No they couldn't.
He happened to see a brochure that advertised Tunica, Mississippi, as "The Casino Capital of the South" with photos of the hotels located along the Mississippi River. One of them caught his eye, the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino. Dennis recognized the manager's name, Billy
, and made the call.
, this is Dennis
, world champion high diver. We met one time in Atlantic City."
said, "We did?"
"I remember I thought at first you were Robert
Redford, only you're a lot younger. You were running the sports book at Spade's." Dennis waited. When there was no response he said, "How high is your hotel?"
was quick. He said, "You want to dive off the roof?"
"Into your swimming pool," Dennis said, "twice a day as a special attraction."
"We go up seven floors."
"That sounds just right."
"But the pool's about a hundred feet away. You'd have to take a good running start, wouldn't you?"
Right there, Dennis knew he could work something out with this Billy
. "I could set my tank right next to the hotel, dive from the roof into nine feet of water. Do a matinee performance and one at night with spotlights on me, seven days a week."
"How much you want?"
Dennis spoke right up, talking to a man who dealt with high rollers. "Five hundred a day."
"How long a run?"
"The rest of the season. Say eight weeks." "You're worth twenty-eight grand?" That quick, off the top of his head.
"I have setup expenses-hire a rigger and put in a system to filter the water in the tank. It stands more than a few days it gets scummy."
"You don't perform all year?"
"If I can work six months I'm doing good."
"I've been a ski instructor, a bartender ..."
's quiet voice asked him, "Where are you?"
In a room at the Fiesta Motel, Panama City, Florida, Dennis told him, performing every evening at the Miracle Strip amusement park. "My contract'll keep me here till the end of the month," Dennis said, "but that's it. I've reached the point ... Actually I don't think I can do another amusement park all summer."
There was a silence on the line, Billy
maybe wondering why but not curious enough to ask.
He said, "Can you get away before you finish up there?"
"If I can get back the same night, before show time."
Something the man would like to hear.
He said, "Fly into Memphis. Take 61 due south and in thirty minutes you're in Tunica, Mississippi."
Dennis said, "Is it a nice town?"
But got no answer. The man had hung up.
This trip Dennis never did see Tunica or even the Mighty Mississippi. He came south through farmland until he began to spot hotels in the distance rising out of fields of soybeans. He came to signs at crossroads pointing off to Harrah's, Bally's, Sam's Town, the Isle of Capri. A serious-looking Indian on a billboard aimed his bow and arrow down a road that took Dennis to the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino. It featured a tepeelike structure rising a good three stories above the entrance, a precast concrete tepee with neon tubes running up and around it. Or was it a wigwam?
The place wasn't open yet. They were still landscaping the grounds, putting in shrubs, laying sod on both sides of a stream that ran to a mound of boulders and became a waterfall. Dennis parked his rental among trucks loaded with plants and young trees, got out and spotted Billy
right away talking to a contractor, Dennis recognizing the Robert Redford hair that made him appear younger than his forty or so years, about the same age as Dennis, the same slight build, tan and trim, a couple of cool guys in their sunglasses. One difference, Dennis' hair was dark and longer, almost to his shoulders.
was turning, starting this way, as Dennis said, "Mr.
He paused, but only a moment. "You're the diver."
"Yes sir, Dennis
said, "You've been at it a while, uh?" with sort of a smile, Dennis wasn't sure.
"I turned pro in '79," Dennis said. "The next year I won the world cliff-diving championship in Switzerland, a place called Ticino? You go off from eighty-five feet into the river."
The man didn't seem impressed or in any hurry.
"You ever get hurt?"
"You can crash, enter the water just a speck out of line it can hurt like hell. The audience thinks it was a rip, perfect."
"You carry insurance?"
"I sign a release. I break my neck it won't cost you anything. I've only been injured, I mean where I needed attention, was my first time at Acapulco. I broke my nose."
Dennis felt Billy
studying him, showing just a faint smile as he said, "You like to live on the edge, huh?"
"Some of the teams I've performed with I was always the edge guy," Dennis said, feeling he could talk to this man. "I've got eighty dives from different heights and most of 'em I can do hungover, like a flying reverse somersault, your standard high dive. But I don't know what I'm gonna do till I'm up there. It depends on the crowd, how the show's going. But I'll tell you something, you stand on the perch looking down eighty feet to the water, you know you're alive."
was nodding. "The girls watching you..."
"That's part of it. The crowd holding its breath."
"Come out of the water with your hair slicked back. .."
Where was he going with this?
"I can see why you do it. But for how long? What will you do after to show off?"
the man here, confident, saying anything he wanted.
Dennis said, "You think I worry about it?"
"You're not desperate,"
said, "but I'll bet you're looking around." He turned, saying, "Come on."
Dennis followed him into the hotel, through the lobby where they were laying carpet and into the casino, gaming tables on one side of the main aisle, a couple of thousand slot machines on the other, like every casino Dennis had ever been in. He said to
's back, "I went to dealers' school in Atlantic City. Got a job at Spade's the same time you were there." It didn't draw a comment. "I didn't like how I had to dress," Dennis said, "so I quit."
paused, turning enough to look at Dennis.
"But you like to gamble."
"Now and then."
"There's a fella works here as a host,"
said. "Charlie Hoke. Chickasaw Charlie, he claims to be part Indian. Spent eighteen years in organized baseball, pitched for Detroit in the '84 World Series. I told Charlie about your call and he said, `Sign him up.' He said a man that likes high risk is gonna leave his paycheck on one of these tables."
Dennis said, "Chickasaw Charlie, huh? Never heard of him."
They came out back of the hotel to the patio bar and swimming pool landscaped to look like a pond sitting there among big leafy plants and boulders.
Dennis looked up at the hotel, balconies on every floor to the top, saying as his gaze came to the sky, "You're right, I'd have to get shot out of a cannon." He looked at the pool again. "It's not deep enough anyway. What I can do, place the tank fairly close to the building and dive straight down."
looked up at the hotel. "You'd want to miss the balconies."
"I'd go off there at the corner."
"What's the tank look like?"
"The Fourth of July, it's white with red and blue stars. What I could do," Dennis said, deadpan, "paint the tank to look like birchbark and hang animal skins around the rim."
gave him a look and swung his gaze out across the sweep of lawn that reached to the Mississippi, the river out of sight beyond a low rise. He didn't say anything staring out there, so Dennis prompted him.
"That's the spot for an eighty-foot ladder. Plenty of room for the guy wires. You rig four to every ten foot section of ladder. It still sways a little when you're up there." He waited for
"Nobody's looking at the wires. They're a twelve-gauge soft wire. You barely notice them."
"You bring everything yourself, the tank, the ladder?"
"Everything. I got a Chevy truck with a big van body and a hundred and twenty thousand miles on it."
"How long's it take you to set up?"
"Three days or so, if I can find a rigger."
Dennis told him how you put the tank together first, steel rods connecting the sections, Dennis said the way you hang a door. Once the tank's put together you wrap a cable around it, tight. Next you spread ten or so bales of hay on the ground inside for a soft floor, then tape your plastic liner to the walls and add water. The water holds the liner in place. Dennis said he'd pump it out of the river. "May as well, it's right there."
asked him where he was from.
"New Orleans, originally. Some family and my exwife's still there. Virginia. We got married too young and I was away most of the time." It was how he always told it. "We're still friends though ... sorta."
Dennis waited. No more questions, so he continued explaining how you set up. How you put up your ladder, fit the ten-foot sections onto one another and tie each one off with the guy wires as you go up. You use what's called a gin pole you hook on, it's rigged with a pulley and that's how you haul up the sections one after another. Fit them onto each other and tie off with the guy wires before you do the next one.
"What do you call what you dive off from?"
"You mean the perch."
"It's at the top of the highest ladder?"
"It hooks on the fifth rung of the ladder, so you have something to hang on to."
"Then you're actually going off from seventy-five feet,"
said, "not eighty."
"But when you're standing on the perch," Dennis said, "your head's above eighty feet, and that's where you are, believe me, in your head. You're no longer thinking about the girl in the thong bikini you were talking to, you're thinking of nothing but the dive. You want to see it in your head before you go off, so you don't have to think and make adjustments when you're dropping thirty-two feet per second per second."