Official Site of Author Robert S. Levinson
WHERE THE LIES BEGIN
by Robert S. Levinson
The name's Marion.
Daniel F., for "Francis."
Generally called "Duke" most of my adult life.
Called a lot worse by some.
I used to be L.A.'s chief of police.
Last year I became a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, elected in what the press called a landslide victory to fill a seat vacated by the death of a supervisor whose distinguished career in public service was cut short by a heart attack in the middle of a routine liaison with one of a half dozen mistresses he kept stashed around the city.
I got talked into running by people I respect, who had more faith than me in the kind of good work I might achieve as one of only five supervisors who, to put it bluntly, run this earthquake-prone area of ten million and are ranked among the most powerful public figures in the nation, not just L.A.
Why'd they pick me to be one of "The Five Kings"?
Because at the time I was doing better than okay in the popularity polls. I was coming off a general reorganization of the department that had resulted in a substantial reduction in major crimes and, specifically, my part in a headline-grabbing Murder One case that had come close to costing me the one thing I value most in my life—
Close, too close, but my aim was better.
I didn't want the supervisor's job.
That kind of power has never been my thing.
The kick in salary was no selling point, either.
Like my Pop before me, I was a professional cop, almost twenty years on the force, the last three as chief, but the power brokers were a persuasive bunch, skilled at showing me how much more I might be able to achieve as a supervisor and, as it turned out, skilled at raising the couple mil it took to negotiate a winning campaign.
My wife, Anny, made me listen to them when I seemed to be wavering, the way she can talk me into anything. She's one persuasive lady that one, and people don't have to check too closely to see she's the love of my life.
"Your Pop would be proud of you," Anny said, capping a bunch of other reasons she quietly drew from her storehouse of basic intelligence and common sense logic when the idea was raised. "For all the good you've done as chief of police and all the good you could keep on doing, think of how much more and greater good you'd be in a position to accomplish on the Board of Supervisors."
She was right.
No surprise there.
The only dumb thing Anny may ever have done was agree to marry me.
She's too good for me.
Always has been.
She doesn't think so, but that only proves nobody can be right a hundred per cent of the time.
Anny is my cornerstone, my foundation, my rock of Gibraltar.
When we first met, I was a Detective One, having set some kind of speed record making the grade, and working the down-and-dirty stuff out of Parker Center. Anny was running an executive job placement agency in the mid-Wilshire area and living in a three-story apartment building built in the thirties, in a fractured neighborhood behind the old, shuttered Ambassador Hotel.
The area had never been high fashion and lately was becoming as low grade as a part of the city might get, full of transient foot traffic that included an increasingly large assortment of street bums, beggars and junkies mining the legit population for handouts when they weren't breaking the law going after bucks or booze or whatever it took to get them to the next hour of their life.
Lately, there'd been a series of residential break-ins. Usually, it was hit-or-miss hit-and-run. Get in. Get your hands on something valuable. Get out. Get headed for the nearest pawnshop, fence, or fix.
Sometimes, it was worse than that.
It was one of the worst of the worst that brought Anny and me together.
Following a business dinner, she had walked into the second floor two-bedroom she shared with a co-worker, Carolyn Keener. Carolyn Keener was dead in bed, a body under the bloody mess left by the junkie rapist who was still there and sprang after Anny the minute she shut the front door and clicked on a light.
Anny was fit, knew her karate, and had the reflexes of a panther. The rapist got the worst of it, but managed to get away. It was then Anny discovered Carolyn Keener's body. She kept her peace of mind until she'd dialed nine-one-one, then proceeded to fall to pieces. That was her state when I laid eyes on her at the crime scene.
I felt the kind of connection that defies words and gravity.
I began the process of helping her put the pieces together.
She let me, otherwise it never would have happened for us past the kinds of basic statements you make to a traumatized civilian mired in stress, disbelieve, sadness, and a growing understanding of what the word "revenge" can mean.
The bond between us grew into happier areas of coexistence, especially after she said, "If you think this is all about me expressing gratitude, Duke, it's time to turn in your Dick Tracy badge."
Then, Anny used the L word.
She said, "I think I love you, Duke."
When I found my breath, I said, "I know I love you, Anny."
"Okay, then," Anny said. "I know it, too. I knew it before you."
It's impossible to miss Anny's outer beauty. She's movie star pretty, although she can't see it herself. She has a face a movie camera would love to caress if it ever got the chance, Reese Witherspoon's kind of perky freshness and innocence in a taller and sexier package. The privileged people are the ones who get close enough to see, experience, and recognize her inner beauty.
We'd been seeing each other six going on seven weeks when we eloped to Las Vegas.
We've been honeymooning almost ever since.
According to Anny, since getting elected a supervisor, I've achieved some pretty good stuff, stuff I can be proud about, stuff Pop would be proud of if he were still living, the same way—had he lived—my Pop and not me might have replaced Charlie Temple as chief of police, the job Charlie beat him out for years earlier.
Not so good yet, but maybe in time, is how I've been getting along with the four other supervisors, who don't agree with most of my methods, more often with what they deem my lack of manners and I consider an incurable inability to kiss anybody's ass.
Until then, a lot of what the supervisors call my personal agenda and I see as part of my vision for a bigger, better, safer L.A. lingers in limbo for lack of the votes I need to get any part of it on the table, much less enacted.
Tonight, though, that was incidental, insignificant petty politics compared to what had brought Anny and me to the Coventry Arms Hotel in Century City, where a Lifetime Achievement Award was being presented to the great Nell Fontanne by the National Motion Picture Assembly of Artists.
Tonight, I'd be playing a crucial role in preventing a national tragedy that could result in death for hundreds of thousands of people.
* * * * *
The person who reached me the previous week in a phone call that rang through on the private office number he had no business knowing said the Feds were calling it "Operation Pay Day."
"It's a damned nuisance having to come up with a cutesy code name for this sort of thing," he said, bustling with conviviality. "Easy to blame Hoover or Dulles, but it was a fact of life in all your government's agencies before either of them came onto the scene. Wild Bill Donovan, I believe it was, started it in the dark days of the OSS, which became the CIA. Initials, also a damned cutesy nonsense."
"And what agency are you?" I said, the sarcasm rumbling at the base of my throat, having quickly figured out this was somebody set up by my old sidekick at Parker Center, Fuzz Todd. "Avis Rent-A-Car?"
"We do try harder, Supervisor Marion, but, no, that's not it at all." He hmmm-ed into my ear. "You believe this is some kind of prank, don't you? I hear it in your voice."
"If you were here you'd also see it on my face. Who did you say this was?"
He had ducked the question the first time I asked and launched straight into his Operation Pay Day pitch.
"I didn't," he said, with less humor than before. "If it should make a difference, however, my name is Bachman. Rupert Bachman. Perhaps you know it?"
He knew that answer by the way I sucked air and said nothing, taking a minute to let the ID sink in. Yeah, right. You bet. Of course. Now I was absolutely, totally certain it was one of Fuzz's practical jokes.
"The Rupert Bachman?"
"Suffice it to say, Supervisor Marion, there are only fourteen Bachmans in the contiguous and continental United States, two more in Alaska, none in Hawaii, none who carry the name Rupert, and none even approximately related to me, living that is, unless the Vietnam government one day opts to reveal otherwise about my brother, Romaine."
Okay, enough of this. "Is Fuzz there with you?"
"Begging your pardon?"
"Fuzz Todd. Put him on, okay? Enough is enough and this is already too much of a not-so-fun thing."
The voice on the phone exhaled. "Are you wearing a watch?'
"If you were calling for the correct time, you definitely have the wrong number, Mr. Bachman." I said his name so he'd know what I thought.
"Supervisor Marion, I have the right number and also the right person. If your watch reads the same as mine—" He mentioned the time. "—any moment you will be informed about two unexpected visitors downstairs at lobby security who would like a few minutes of your time."
Whereupon, as if on cue, a voice over the intercom system: "Chief, Security just called up to say there are two square jaws to see you, but they're not on the clearance log and I don't have them on mine, either."
The caller heard something going on in the background. He said, "I expect that is your extremely efficient Miss Gossage so advising you, Supervisor Marion?"
"Chief, Security says they just flashed badges and IDs. Feds out of Washington."
The caller was humming some personal melody in my ear.
I didn't know whether I wanted to brain Fuzz for this one or applaud his initiative.
This gag of his was better than the bull he bought and had Air Expressed from Billings, Montana, after my election, with a note that said, "In case you ever have any problems telling your political bullshit from the real stuff."
"Look, here's the deal," I said into the phone. "Two seconds to tell me what this is all about or it's a click in your ear and your playmates downstairs get sent back to Central Casting."
"I can do it in two words, Supervisor."
I hadn't had the feeling that hit me then since the last time I was cold-cocked.
I couldn't remember how much I'd ever said to Fuzz about Bruno and me.
"What about Bruno Guy?"
"My associates will tell you."
"You tell me first."
"I don't think so, Supervisor Marion." This was not a man who liked to lose. You could hear it in his voice. "But I will give you the message Bruno asked us to convey to you: Green Peace. He said you would know."
I didn't and was about to say so when the light bulb over my head lit up.
"Do you mean green pee? Pee as in piss?"
The caller made a buzzing sound.
"Correct, Supervisor Marion! You get to advance to the next square. . .Peace, that was my little test, you see?" he said, sarcastically. "Just to be certain you are who you say you are. Green Peace. Green Peas. As foolish as Operation Pay Day, but lacking the same potential for wide-scale death and disaster. Unless, of course, you continue to think this is a prank." Turning too hard-voiced serious for that. "It is not, Supervisor Marion. It is not, as God is my witness."
Five minutes later, Bachman was off the phone and two men wearing identical charcoal gray Brooks Brothers suits and dark druggie-style glasses, looking like fugitives from one of those old Blues Brothers skits, were settling at attention in the visitors' chairs across from my desk.
As they re-pocketed their IDs, the taller and bulkier of the pair said, "Affirmative, sir. Rupert Bachman. And all of us to a man proud to be serving on his watch, Supervisor Marion."
"The Bug Man.'"
"Yes, sir, correct, sir. The Department of Domestic Terrorism."
"Yes, sir. Correct, sir. DDT's mandate has to do with homegrown terrorism and identifying and defeating any and all the anti-American elements working to undermine our democratic structure, you understand who I mean?"
"Like the Branch Dividians?"
"That was an FBI matter, sir, although we did consult early in the game."
"The Olympic Village bombing?"
"Also, FBI," he said, not entirely convincingly.
"Like Ruby Ridge?"
The Brooks Brothers looked at one another but neither replied, until the shorter one, who toyed with his nose like he was trying to keep it from running, said, "Apologies, but it's still too classified to discourse on yet, sir, without the express authorization of Mr. Bachman."
"Like Bruno Guy?"
"Closer to the situation at hand, sir," he said, taking short snorts as his fingers plugged one nostril and then the other. "Ralph and I are here expressly for that discussion." He made a deferring motion.
Ralph looked around the office and, satisfied, clasped his hands on the desk, leaned forward, and said, "Bruno Guy wants to come home," so quietly it was almost a whisper. He nodded to the disbelief he read in my eyes. "You, sir, are his designated safety."
When I was sure of my voice, I said, "Exactly what the hell does that mean, designated safety?"
Out of the side of his mouth he muttered to the other Brooks Brother, "Paul?"
Paul's turn now, like they were a pair of performing seals.
"As far as we can advise, sir, the prick traitor does not trust his country's word of honor in a sufficient amount to believe entirely in the agreement reached with him," Paul said. "It includes a guaranteed safe return, but Guy fears he'll be terminated upon contact, unless he surrenders in the presence of a collateral safeguard. He specified you."
"Are you saying he wants to surrender to me?"
They harmonized the answer: "Yes, sir."
I was too amazed by what I had just heard to respond to the fact Paul Brooks Brothers had called my oldest friend a "prick traitor." Bruno was no saint, but he was better than that. Always had been.
"He wants to turn himself in after seventeen years of hiding from people like you?"
"Yes, sir," Ralph Brooks Brothers said.
"To go to prison for the rest of his life?"
Ralph looked at Paul before speaking. Shook his head. "No, sir. I'm at liberty to say Bruno Guy will receive a full and complete amnesty under the agreement worked out with Mr. Bachman."
Paul said, "Besides, the prick traitor's only been a fugitive from charges over the course of the past seventeen years. Under our legal system, he's not guilty until a court of law finds him guilty, as he most assuredly would be without the amnesty agreement."
"When is this supposed to take place?"
"Next week, sir."
"At a special awards dinner we understand you're going to at the Coventry Arms Hotel? For some actress named Belle Fountain?"
"That's it," Ralph said, and corrected himself.
"How did you know I'm attending the dinner? I haven't sent in my RSVP yet?" I shuffled through a modest pile of paperwork to my left and pulled out from somewhere near the bottom the reply card that should have gone off a week ago. Held it up for them to see.
"We did not know, sir," said Paul. "It was that prick traitor's idea?"
He stopped, as if expecting I'd tell him how that could be.
I could have.
It was another indication there was truth in what I'd been hearing.
Bruno knew how much my wife, Anny, and I loved Nell Fontanne.
When I didn't offer any explanation, Paul shrugged and said, "I suppose it's because of how public Miss Fountain's dinner will be. Big crowd and all. Safety in numbers. So Guy's got that on his side, as well as you." Spoken as if I were a "prick traitor" by association.
"How will the contact be made?"
"That's the part we don't exactly know, sir," Ralph said, as if I'd asked a question he didn't expect. "As we understand it, he'll have someone deliver a message to you. That message will take you and us to him."
Ralph and Paul shrugged in unison.
"Something else. After seventeen years, why's the government letting Bruno Guy come home? Since Bruno's a prick traitor--" I gave Paul a harsh glance--"why negotiate an amnesty? Why not just go out and capture the prick traitor once and for all?"
"Too slick and too many fellow travelers to hide with," he said. "Besides, not who he is, sir. It's what the prick traitor knows."
"Fellow travelers? Are you now saying Bruno Guy is a communist?"
"Communism has ceased to exist, sir, but communists still abound on the frontiers of freedom, looking for new opportunities to cross and conquer."
Righteous indignation glimmered in Paul's eyes.
I wasn't about to discuss political theory with either of them. Or, religion. Or, the weather.
I said, "What does he know that's worth amnesty?"
They made eye contact.
Ralph nodded and said, "Sir, we were contacted by Bruno Guy with an indication that the--you know of the Freedom Militia?"
"They make bombs that blow up people. You're not saying Bruno Guy is one of them, are you?"
"Not saying that, no, sir. Saying he contacted us and said the Freedom Militia before the month is over plans to explode seven bombs in seven government buildings in seven locations throughout the country. The bombs are already in place, Bruno Guy said. Meaning thousands and thousands of lives are at risk even as we sit here talking. Bruno Guy said he knows where the bombs are and the day and time they'll go off. He said he would give us this information in exchange for complete amnesty."
I got up, shaking my head, looking around the office for—
A truth easier to deal with?
I said, "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Deathly serious, yes, sir."
"What's to prevent you from taking Bruno down once you have the information?"
Ralph thought about it. "You, sir, we suppose."
"And if something goes wrong?"
Ralph threw up his arms and ever so softly said, "Boom!"
* * * * *
The other supervisors also were rolling out for Nell Fontanne tonight, along with the mayor, city council members, other city and county honchos, and the governor, to see Nell receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. The annual NMPAA gala was one of the perks of officialdom and an outstanding see and be seen opportunity for the ones who'd be campaigning next year for reelection.
It was one of those typical Show Biz spectaculars, where you can't find the sky for all the kliegs shooting golden shafts of rotating light upward to infinity.
The Hollywood A-list out in full, fancy, formal dress.
Bodies beautiful coifed and prepped for adulation.
Rows of perfectly-groomed teeth glistening inside frozen smiles aimed at the crush of screaming, wide-eyed fans, scrambling news crews and wild-eyed paparazzi shouting their Look this ways behind red-velvet ropes protecting the red-carpeted route curbside to the lobby of the hotel.
Jack Nicholson brushed by me, his dark glasses intact, as usual, his aging bulk stuffed on proud, indifferent display inside a tux with out-of-date lapels almost as long as his rounded shoulders, lapping up every moment of the gushing adoration, scribbling his name in autographs books thrust out by fans who were squealing madly, needing a piece of Jack but not wanting to miss out on Mel or Julia or Tom Hanks. Harrison Ford. Brad Pitt. Denzel. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Nicole. Halle Berry. Two of the newer hunks on the fame front, Russell Crowe and George Clooney, trying to lure Johnny Depp into their clowning for the cameras, thumbing their noses at him as he side-stepped their shenanigans.
Anny nudged an elbow into my side, leaned in to whisper, "Over there, don't be obvious. . .Peter O'Toole."
I must have been obvious. Peter O'Toole smiled and waved at me, as if he really knew who I was. I smiled meekly and waved back like it was the most natural thing in the world. Two celebrities out for another night of nights in the City of the Angels, ol' Peter, wearing his celebrity like a crown, me, wearing my rented tux like a, well, rented tux, the sleeves a half inch too short, the old-style collar of the heavily starched shirt a fraction too small, the plain black button studs no match for the ornate diamonds on the ruffled silk shirt stretching across Sly Stallone's sculptured chest.
"He's still so beautiful, Peter O'Toole," Anny whispered. "I'll never forget him in Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter."
"What about A Private Romance?"
"A Private Romance was not Peter O'Toole's picture," she said, in that resolute manner of hers. "That was Nell Fontanne's picture. Peter O'Toole was clearly the second lead to Nell Fontanne." Anny invariably referred to movie stars by their full screen name, as if anything less was a disservice to stardom.
Nell Fontanne, of course, was stardom personified, as dozens of handmade signs waved by hyper fans ready for their close-up from the TV news cameras made perfectly, reverently clear:
Welcome Back, Nell Fontanne.
You're Still Our Belle, Princess Nell.
Nell Fontanne—Ever a Princess, Always a Star.
Nell, The Silver Screen Needs You Now More Than Ever.
Just One More Movie, Nell. Just Say Yes.
It had been thirty years since she had run off to become the bride of a prince, the heir to some foreign throne in a rinky-dink kingdom that looked like a dust spot on the globe, hardly as regal or glamorous to us as the throne Nell occupied in Hollywood as "Queen of the Screen."
Nell Fontanne before her marriage and retirement was a last link between the Golden Age of Motion Pictures and all the decades that followed, who became a star opposite the likes of Gable, Bogart, Stewart, and Grant and by her mere presence stole scenes from Tracy, Clift, Powell, and even Brando, who explained how she did it in the years he was still talking to the press:
"I don't know," Brando said. "That's how."
Even Fred Astaire, who'd routinely answer "Gene Kelly" when asked to name his favorite dancing partner paused whenever Nell's name was mentioned and, finally, in a self-effacing manner would mumble, "Oh, brother! She reminds me of my sister." That was Adele, who the critics considered the more talented of the Astaires before she went off to England, marriage to royalty, and her own retirement.
Nell Fontanne in her day was one of the few stars and certainly the only actress besides Davis and Crawford who could demand and receive sole billing above the title, because the moguls knew Nell's name on the marquee was enough to fill movie theaters everywhere in the world.
And, Nell Fontanne was one of the few stars who got a million bucks a picture, this at a time when the likes of reigning box-office champs like Newman and McQueen had not yet broken into seven figures.
With the passing years, all but Nell's diehard fans--like Anny and me--seemed to forget about her, moving on to newcomers like Ali McGraw and Faye Dunaway and, of course, Streisand.
Videocassettes and cable television changed that again as Nell's performances became more accessible, even though she didn't. She chose to stay at home, performing the charity work and good deeds that had made her much loved among her countrymen.
Year in and year out, there were published news reports about movie offers from a Hitchcock or Wilder; more recently from Spielberg and Oliver Stone, who supposedly wanted her for the Queen of England in some fanciful fiction about the supposed political assassination of another princess.
The legitimate offers, the ones not made for the publicity windfall they usually guaranteed, were met with a reply from a social secretary at her seaside castle, always to the effect that Her Royal Highness Princess Nell was flattered by the invitation, but was not able to take time away from her responsibilities to His Royal Highness Prince Jean-August and her domain.
She even sent gracious thank yous—and regrets—every year the Motion Picture Academy invited her to come back home for the Oscar ceremonies. That was just about every year, so it came as a major surprise to all who knew her history when the National Motion Picture Assembly of Artists told a hastily convened press conference that Nell Fontanne had agreed to accept the NMPAA's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award and would return to America to personally receive the honor.
* * * * *
I was on the lookout for someone with a message for me as Anny and I passed a reporter with flowing red hair and over-painted lips, who was gushing into her handheld mike, "The last star-studded turnout like this was for Britain's Royal Family. But, tonight, the royalty of Hollywood honors a true princess of its very own. . ."
Honking horns grew louder, shriller, emphasizing what was already clear to a glance. The traffic wasn't moving in either direction on Avenue of the Stars. It's what happens when everybody is too important to arrive on time or, Heaven forbid, a little early from their Beverly Hills homes next door to Century City.
Uniformed cops on casual foot patrol, alert but not aggressive, mingled with the crowd. One of them was tucked in a corner with a good sight line to the arrivals lanes of the circular driveway, responding to something he had just been asked by a blonde-haired man in a classic Brooks Brothers suit and designer shades, who at once transmitted what I guessed was the answer into a miniaturized two-way.
I figured him for one of Rupert Bachman's people, not part of the regular security setup, although there never can be enough security on nights like these, not with more Nutso McGonigles out there than MGM ever had stars in the heavens, or whatever the slogan was in the days of Garbo, Gable, the Barrymores, Tracy, Hepburn, Crawford, and, of course, a young Nell Fontanne using her pigtails to steal scenes from Mickey Rooney.
A blue-jacketed parking attendant carelessly let the passenger door of a late-model silver Rolls bang into the side of a sleek Lexus with new owner paper Scotch-taped to the window.
I winced loud enough for Anny to glance at me questioningly.
"You should have let me park Red Rider by myself, next door at the mall," I said of my beloved, classic '62 Porsche Roadster. "See over there?"
She followed my traveling thumb to the Rolls, just as Travolta emerged and, with a grin good enough to end wars, raised his fists to the roar of the crowd.
"God, he's beautiful!" Anny said. "I'd almost wet my pants if I were wearing any." She was quite beautiful herself, of course, in a black silk strapless gown she'd copied out of Vogue, Vanity Fair, one of those magazines. "Duke, I think John Travolta is hugging Tom Cruise. Yes! Tom Cruise was in the limo behind him. All by his lonesome tonight."
I made a face. "Did you hear what I said about Red Rider?" I asked over the din, pressing my mouth closer to her ear. "They still haven't moved it from the parking lanes. I'll go drive it to the mall. Park it myself. I don't do something fast, one of those parking kids is sure to strip my gears."
Anny gave me one of her bedroom looks. "Don't be silly, Sailor. You know that stripping your gears is my job."
She has this flair for raunchy humor, Anny.
I ignore it when I can.
I said, "I'm gonna get the kid who never saw a stick shift before tonight."
"Love your stick shift."
I said, "Probably the son or the nephew of the parking concession owner."
Anny said, "Everything is relative, Sailor," and steered me ahead.
* * * * *
At about the same time, an early model white Mercedes slipped out of the traffic flow, descended into a low level of the Century City mall's underground garage, and slid into an empty space against a distant wall. The driver who emerged and clicked his door locks was wearing a tux that added to his distinguished appearance as much as his head of thick white hair and a neatly manicured white beard.
He walked around to the trunk, popped it open, and in a moment had pulled a .22 caliber automatic from the toolbox. He checked the clip and, satisfied, he pocketed the weapon and slammed down the trunk lid. He clicked the locks one more time and headed for an exit in a soldierly stride, back straight, shoulders erect, like a man on a mission.
A minute or two later, the Driver crossed the side street, angling through the maze of cars trapped bumper-to-bumper and joined others who were using a side entrance into the Coventry Arms Hotel.
A dark-haired, olive-skinned man in a Brooks Brothers suit and dark glasses, unquestionably a security person, casually studied the foot traffic while talking into a com phone and gave him no more attention than anyone else as he passed by.
Why should he?
Unless, of course, he were a mind reader.
Then he'd also know to stop him before he murdered—
Ah, but it won't be murder, will it? the Driver thought to himself, smiling at no one in particular.
Death takes many forms, he thought, as it will again tonight, not too many hours from now.
He patted the .22 for reassurance.