A Rhumba In Waltz Time
by Robert S. Levinson
RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME
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.
vato locos fled.
chasing after them, the uniforms threw the blowsy, stripped-down blonde looker
into the cruiser and aimed for Central Division at City Hall.
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.
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
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.
laughed like they’d just invented humor.
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.
“Knock off the crap. Just make the booking.”
heard my snarl of a command, the two cops weren’t aware anyone had come into the
station house behind them.
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.
joking around is all, Blanchard. We caught the bitch chipping over in Echo, her
and a bunch of Pancho Villas who ran off.”
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.”
bitch!” Ferret-Face’s voice overrode hers. “Don’t go making it worse on
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.”
you uncuff her and get your sorry asses back on the street? I’ll finish it up
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
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.”
and Ferret-Face exchanged body language and silent communications.
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.
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.”
have let it end there and taken her home.
took the girl’s statement.
honest cop and being a smart cop, they’re not necessarily one and the same.
* * * * *
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.
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.
go down that way.
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.
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.”
That’s how I’d classify what you’re trying to do to your two brothers in blue,
assholes though they might be.”
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?”
horse you rode in on, Blanchard. For Christ’s sake, it’s not like they went down
on the Virgin Mary.”
to the girl.”
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.”
that sound like a threat, Chief?”
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.”
* * * * *
the consequences through a sleepless night and came down on the side of law and
internal call I tried led to a dead end.
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.
memories were shorter than Singer’s Midgets.
favor in the bunch at the Times, Herald Express or Daily
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
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.”
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
saying it’s also the studio, Metro, sweeping this business under the rug.”
that I can see, not here, pal. All that’s on the floor here are cigarette butts
and spilled coffee.”
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.
hadn’t seen her for days.
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.
* * * * *
Year arrived, with it notification that I was being suspended, on charges of
insubordination and chronic drunkenness.
celebrated by getting drunk.
from the bender to a summons scheduling me for a disciplinary panel that
included the assistant chief.
about going on another bender.
turned in my badge and gun, beating that conniving son of a bitch to the punch—
on the bender.
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.
from Louis B. Mayer’s office at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer changed that—
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.
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
there was a screen test in the offing.
absent starlet, maybe?
but curiosity is a prime addiction of the underprivileged.
Blanchard said he’d be honored.
* * * * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
solution beyond his shadowy reach, or so went the legend building around
Howard here, Mr. Blanchard? Howard Strickling.”
as I know Lamont Cranston,” I said.
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
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.
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.
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.”
deed was that, Mr. Mayer?”
man, Strick. I like that about Chris. . . . Our sweet, young actress and her
unfortunate encounter with two officers of the law, of course.”
only doing my job.”
cost you your job,” Strickling said, barely loud enough to be heard.
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.”
and, arms locked behind his back, paced a small circle on the elaborate Persian
rug behind the desk.
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.”
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.”
nodded. “Mr. Mayer knows that, Blanchard.”
that, Chris,” Mayer 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?”
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.
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
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.”
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
that what you do, Mr. Strickling?”
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.”
think that’s me.”
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.”
said, “You would be surprised about some of the people who vouched for you,
instance. Care to name names, Mr. Strickling?”
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
was truth in what he’d told me and, besides—
other option was unemployment.
And I did
love the movies.
pay?” I said.
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.
every week, not every month,” Strickling said, as if he’d read my mind. “It pays
a lot of alimony.”
really do your homework well, Mr. Strickling.”
ever be too thorough.”
might turn out to be interesting,” I said. “I could try it for a while.”
to our family,” Mayer said, offering a handshake.
* * * * *
going on five, I was still at MGM.