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A Rhumba In Waltz Time
by Robert S. Levinson
Chapter One

 

A RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME

CHAPTER 1

DECEMBER 1933

 

Prohibition and my future as an LAPD detective ended within a month of each other, after a nineteen-year-old MGM starlet who’d been celebrating her option pickup with Benzedrine and sidecars at an Echo Park dive was assaulted by a couple cholos in the backseat of the Chevy convertible she’d parked in the garbage-riddled alley behind the bar.

A pair of cruiser cops crashed the scene.

The vato locos fled.

Instead of chasing after them, the uniforms threw the blowsy, stripped-down blonde looker into the cruiser and aimed for Central Division at City Hall.

That night, working the cold spaghetti and warm beer shift out of Hollywood Division, I was at Central following up on a series of mob-inspired murders that had spread to Central’s jurisdiction, when they waltzed in slap-wrestling the handcuffed girl. She was half-naked in torn clothing that revealed a flat chest smothered in nasty bruises and bite marks, and her desperate Orphan Annie eyes punctuated a battered face stained with mascara.

They led her to the desk sergeant, where the beefier of the pair, whose belly hung over his uniform belt like an island of Jell-O, said, “This one’s a whore no more tonight, Maxie.”

“Unless you’d like us to deposit her in a holding cell and one of us hold down the phone for you, while you do some fancy interrogation,” his younger and trimmer partner chimed in, his ferret-like face gushing with delight.

Both cops laughed like they’d just invented humor.

I might have thought better than to involve myself, but common sense and good judgment—never my strongest attributes—had been at their weakest since my wife left me a year ago. They had been further bound and blinded five minutes ago in the parking lot by the two quick tastes from the flask I kept under the seat of my unmarked, next to my throwaway .32 revolver with the numbers filed off and my lifetime stash of Pep-O-Mint Life Savers and Sen-Sen.

I said, “Knock off the crap. Just make the booking.”

Until they heard my snarl of a command, the two cops weren’t aware anyone had come into the station house behind them.

Big Belly wheeled around, a nasty look on his Porky Pig face, getting ready to say something nastier, when he recognized me and broke out a fake smile.

“Just joking around is all, Blanchard. We caught the bitch chipping over in Echo, her and a bunch of Pancho Villas who ran off.”

The girl made an undecipherable sound and struggled to raise her voice above a whisper. “I was raped, and these bulls didn’t try catching the guys who done it. They told me they’d let me go if I gave them both blowjobs. I told them to try blowing each other, not something they liked hearing from me.”

“Shut up, bitch!” Ferret-Face’s voice overrode hers. “Don’t go making it worse on yourself.”

Big Belly shook his head. “The bitch is lying, Blanchard. Been threatening trouble since we saw her panties down around her ankles. Going on about being some movie star, knowing big, important people, and how if we didn’t let her go it was aces and eights for us.”

“Why don’t you uncuff her and get your sorry asses back on the street? I’ll finish it up from here.”

Ferret-Face said, “You’re not gonna believe this damn slut over two of your own, are you, Detective? Or you out to steal our pinch, that what this is really about?”

Maxie the desk sergeant frowned and gave his walrus mustache several anxious tugs. He knew me and my temper well enough, had seen it in action when it was fueled by booze and anger. He bounced into the conversation before I could answer Ferret-Face. “Do yourselves a favor, boys. Uncuff her like Chris said, get the hell back on the street hoping he forgets your badge numbers by the time the sun comes up and the milkmen start their rounds.”

Big Belly and Ferret-Face exchanged body language and silent communications.

“Okay, okay,” Big Belly said. He held up the key to the cuffs like it established some bond between us and freed the girl, who spit in his wake after he turned and took off with Ferret-Face.

She pushed back her hair, adjusted her clothing, and used the back of a hand to brush away the tears washing her mascara-blackened cheek. “Thank you,” she said, in a whisper hampered by a phlegm-filled throat. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, and God bless you.”

I should have let it end there and taken her home.

Instead, I took the girl’s statement.

A mistake.

Big, big mistake.

Being an honest cop and being a smart cop, they’re not necessarily one and the same.

* * * * *

By daylight I’d gone back to the bar in Echo Park, found the starlet’s car and a few witnesses to confirm enough of her story to recognize she’d been telling the truth, enough to have her sprung uncharged to the custody of a baggy-eyed lawyer with a gimp left arm who had been dispatched to Rampart by MGM after I advised Maxie to call her agent and explain the situation.

Afterward, I filed a report, expecting it to lead to an investigation that would cost those two miserable excuses for law and order their jobs, their pensions and, maybe, earn them a deserved Northern California vacation at San Quentin.

It didn’t go down that way.

Less than twenty-four hours after filing the paperwork, I was sitting across the battered, jacket-filled desk of an LAPD assistant chief, who was instructing me to forget what had happened as if it never had happened.

Angered at the order and fortified by a mouthful of Pep-O-Mint Life Savers, I said, “The department is already dirty enough, so it’s not like I’m adding anything new, Chief, just unloading four or five hundred pounds of garbage.”

“Dirty? That’s how I’d classify what you’re trying to do to your two brothers in blue, assholes though they might be.”

“They’re not my brothers, Chief. They’re two horny sons of bitches who should be introduced to the justice system. Justice. The word ring any bells?”

“And the horse you rode in on, Blanchard. For Christ’s sake, it’s not like they went down on the Virgin Mary.”

“Tell that to the girl.”

“She was up to here in bennies.” The assistant chief moved his hand horizontally to the bridge of his bulbous, blue-veined nose. “And up to her fucking gills in booze—” Paused dramatically. “—like you are three-quarters of the time, Blanchard.” He eased back in his chair and laced his fingers over his stomach, pushed out an insincere smile. “Somehow that’s never caused the kind of paperwork that could get you in deep waters.”

“Why does that sound like a threat, Chief?”

He leaned forward with his elbows propped on the desk and made a pyramid with his fingers. “Maybe because that’s the way I meant it? You try to make ka-ka for me and, so help me, Detective, I will make ka-ka for you.”

* * * * *

I weighed the consequences through a sleepless night and came down on the side of law and order.

Every internal call I tried led to a dead end.

I turned to pals I’d made at the newspapers by shelling out inside tips that helped me stir pots that needed stirring and brought them page one bylines.

Their memories were shorter than Singer’s Midgets.

More dead ends.

Not one favor in the bunch at the Times, Herald Express or Daily News.

A glimmer of revelation came from an assistant city editor at the Examiner, whom I had once rescued from some potential knee-breaking debts he’d run to the moon playing the ponies with one of the bad boy bookmakers operating up Topanga Canyon.

“Chris, it’s your word against the Blue Wall of Silence, and that’s not even good enough for fifty words on a back page across from the classifieds,” he said. “You have a bone to chew, but no red meat for the likes of a news hound like me. Make it a meal and maybe it’ll happen.”

“Like what, Smokey?”

“Like the obvious, the actress confirming what you put into a report that I’ll bet is nowhere to be found, anybody from the press comes looking. Get her talking and maybe you have a story worth a headline in 72-point type. But you won’t find her, and if you do, you won’t find her ready to spill. Understand what I’m telling you?”

“You’re saying it’s also the studio, Metro, sweeping this business under the rug.”

“No rug that I can see, not here, pal. All that’s on the floor here are cigarette butts and spilled coffee.”

No rug.

No actress, when I went searching after her.

Not at the home address I had for her, a villa-style garden apartment complex on Beachwood, in the shadow of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign.

Neighbors hadn’t seen her for days.

Only a runaround at MGM, where I got a different story from everyone who took my call. She was on location; not sure where or what production, sorry. She was visiting her family; no, not in L.A., not sure where. She was in New York, in seclusion, preparing to audition for a play; no, sorry, don’t have any other details.

* * * * *

JANUARY 1934

 

The New Year arrived, with it notification that I was being suspended, on charges of insubordination and chronic drunkenness.

I celebrated by getting drunk.

Woke up from the bender to a summons scheduling me for a disciplinary panel that included the assistant chief.

Thought about going on another bender.

Instead, turned in my badge and gun, beating that conniving son of a bitch to the punch—

Then went on the bender.

After sixteen years on the force, the best I could expect was a pension that would not buy more than a bag of peanuts and a cloud of cotton candy at the circus.

A call from Louis B. Mayer’s office at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer changed that—

His private secretary, Ida Koverman, inquiring in a voice as proper as a senior prom corsage if Mr. Blanchard would be good enough to meet this afternoon with Mr. Mayer.

I didn’t know Mayer, only of Mayer, that Mayer was the studio’s vice president of production and possibly the most powerful man in the movie business, given he presided over the most successful movie studio, made more money than his mogul counterparts at the other studios, and played benevolent “Uncle Louie,” accomplishing with his iron fist only what he couldn’t achieve through crocodile tears.

I doubted there was a screen test in the offing.

About his absent starlet, maybe?

Unlikely, but curiosity is a prime addiction of the underprivileged.

Mr. Blanchard said he’d be honored.

* * * * *

I reached Culver City and the studio about fifteen minutes before our three o’clock appointment, parked my battered ’32 V8 coupe in the lot and studied the billboard on the grass knoll before crossing to the administration building. It was advertising an upcoming movie called The Thin Man, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’d read the book it was based on, by an old Pinkerton hand named Hammett; not bad.

The Art Deco building was situated next door to a sedate funeral home. Mayer’s second-floor suite was reached through an inner office occupied by four secretaries that fed into the inner office Ida Koverman shared with her own private secretary, elegantly furnished like a set from one of the studio’s drawing room comedies.

Several people were waiting for an audience—looking anxious, nervous, like they were sitting out a jury verdict—in cushioned armchairs or straight-backed chairs from the reign of one of the French King Louies, not Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Louie, the Russian-born son of a scrap metal peddler.

The only face I recognized belonged to Chester Morris, a regular in a lot of the MGM cops and robbers movies that were always on the lower half of a double bill with a movie starring Gable or Tracy or Shearer, or one of the other big names at the studio that boasted “More Stars Than in the Heavens.” Wearing a look of practiced resignation, he managed a brief smile and a nod after he caught me studying him, but converted it to a sneer when Koverman ushered me ahead of him into the august presence of Mayer.

If the outer office was the bees’ knees, Mayer’s was the whole damn hive.

I felt I was stepping into a scaled-down version of the throne room of the Czar of all the Russias. Mayer, a good fifty feet away, didn’t seem out of place behind an ornately carved, curved desk etched in gold.

He rose to welcome me, stretching out his arms as if anxious to embrace a long-lost brother. “Thank you, thank you for coming, Mr. Blanchard.” Each word carried its own punctuation. The tip of his smile stretched almost to his ears. He gestured for me to take the empty visitor’s chair.

The other chair was occupied by a gent I’d occasionally seen at the station house, Mayer’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, the studio’s “fixer.”

It was whispered around the LAPD that Strickling knew everybody who mattered and where the bodies were buried—supposedly having buried a few himself—and over the years had rescued more than a few stars and others from personal or career disaster, what he’d once been overheard calling “life’s little inconveniences.”

No problem too small.

No secret too scandalous.

No crime too heinous.

No solution beyond his shadowy reach, or so went the legend building around Strickling.

“You know Howard here, Mr. Blanchard? Howard Strickling.”

“As well as I know Lamont Cranston,” I said.

Strickling smiled. “The spotlight is for our stars,” he said, revealing a modest stutter in an otherwise soft-spoken, well-modulated voice that carried overtones of his West Virginia roots, and let his gaze drift over Mayer and out the picture window.

He was stylishly dressed in a custom-tailored double-breasted sky blue pinstripe, matching wide tie and pocket handkerchief, and black wingtips that could double as a shaving mirror. Mid-thirties. Full head of impeccably cut black hair. A golf course tan. Handsome short of leading man looks; more a guy like Ralph Bellamy, who’d lose the girl to Gable or Tracy in the final reel.

Mayer by contrast was in his early fifties and homely as a gnome, or how I was ready to bet a gnome would look if he looked like Mayer. Short of stature. A receding hairline. Steel-rimmed glasses perched on a prominent nose. A thick body disguised by the world’s most expensive haberdashery.

He smiled delightedly, and grazing his eyes on me, said, “Well, boys, I’ll get right to the point.” Pushed forward, shoulders hunched, and finger-locked his hands on a desk dressed in an intercom, telephones and an array of paperwork. “I hear how you did us a good deed, Mr. Blanchard; Chris, if you’ll permit me to call you Chris?” I nodded, not for a minute thinking the decision was mine to make. “I believe good deeds should never go unrewarded, Chris.”

“What good deed was that, Mr. Mayer?”

“A modest man, Strick. I like that about Chris. . . . Our sweet, young actress and her unfortunate encounter with two officers of the law, of course.”

“I was only doing my job.”

“And it cost you your job,” Strickling said, barely loud enough to be heard.

Mayer said, “And it cost you your job,” delivering the line with the passion of a Barrymore. “That should not have happened, Chris.” He slammed a fist on the high-gloss surface of the desk. “That was not right. That was not fair. That was not justice. That was not the American way.” He turned his mesmeric stare from me to Strickling, who nodded agreement. “And not just my opinion, either.”

He rose and, arms locked behind his back, paced a small circle on the elaborate Persian rug behind the desk.

“Strick here has told me how you could’ve left our little girl without a career and my studio with her new movie coming out that could’ve put us in some red ink but good after what I think the Bible-thumpers and the fish eaters would be doing and saying with their rantings and ravings.”

“Those thoughts never entered my mind, Mr. Mayer. Your little girl did wrong, but those two cops did worse. I didn’t get dumped for helping to spring her or because I wanted to give you and her movie a happy ending. I wanted those two rotten apples out of the basket.”

Strickling nodded. “Mr. Mayer knows that, Blanchard.”

“I know that, Chris,” Mayer said.

I said, “When they came after me, I went looking for your little girl, because no one was going to believe me without her corroboration, but she was as reachable as the moon.” I turned to Strickling. “Your handiwork, Mr. Strickling?”

Strickling shrugged.

Mayer said, “My champion horses don’t only win at the track, Chris.” He threw a mouthful of teeth at Strickling, who pushed off the compliment.

I was beginning to feel like I was in the climax of an MGM movie, the only one who hadn’t read the script. I rose and adjusted my jacket, preparing to scram out of there.

“Sit, I’m not finished yet,” Mayer said, poking the air with an index finger. I sat. “A favor is a favor no matter what, and that’s what you did for us and, Chris—I want you to come work for me.” His head bobbed up and down so furiously that his jowls danced. “Explain it to Chris, Strick, what I have in mind for him.”

Strickling jumped on his cue. “Mr. Mayer believes you would be the perfect one to undertake special problems here at the studio, as they might occur,” he said in a noncommittal tone.

“Isn’t that what you do, Mr. Strickling?”

Mayer answered for him. “Strick does what he has to do, a lot better than anyone knows,” he said, “only Strick got his hands full watching out for me with the stars and the shleppers who don’t know enough to stay out of trouble. I got other things need watching out and worrying about, and I need them handled by somebody who is honest and who I can trust.”

“And you think that’s me.”

“I know that’s you, Chris. I had Strick ask around before I sent for you. He said you had a good reputation, but I wanted to be absolutely certain.”

Strickling said, “You would be surprised about some of the people who vouched for you, Blanchard.”

“For instance. Care to name names, Mr. Strickling?”

“In time, maybe.”

“Mr. Mayer, I don’t hide evidence and I don’t pay off cops to look the other way, if that’s what anyone is thinking. I don’t do rhumbas in waltz time.”

Anger flashed across Strickling’s face, vanished as quickly. “And I don’t do booze for water,” he said, his words hissing like a steam cleaner.

Mayer said, “Boys, enough!” He pinned me with his stare again. “Chris, I wanted to, I could’ve put in a call to the highest reaches, the highest reaches, and you would have been back on the police force in no time at all.” He snapped his finger. “Like so. And you might even have been promoted. Louie Mayer knows when to give out favors and when to get them, but I wanted you here, Chris, all favors aside. It’s not for you, just say so, and I’ll say Thank you for your time in coming on over here, shake your hand and walk you to the door. Why? Because then you’ll be a foolish man in my estimate and I got offices full up already with foolish men. Besides, I don’t ever beg, you understand?”

He seemed on the verge of tears, stroked at his eyes, clutched at his chest like he was struggling for breath—

As good an actor as I’d heard.

But there was truth in what he’d told me and, besides—

My only other option was unemployment.

And I did love the movies.

They were my passion.

“What’s it pay?” I said.

“You were a hundred percent correct, Strick. Chris is not a foolish man, but he is a practical man,” Mayer said, cackling. He made a performance of looking to Heaven for a number. The one he chose was about five times what I had pulled down every month as a Detective One.

“That’s every week, not every month,” Strickling said, as if he’d read my mind. “It pays a lot of alimony.”

“You really do your homework well, Mr. Strickling.”

“One can’t ever be too thorough.”

“The job might turn out to be interesting,” I said. “I could try it for a while.”

“Welcome to our family,” Mayer said, offering a handshake.

* * * * *

Four years going on five, I was still at MGM.

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