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Los Angeles, 1939. It’s Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Rick Barron is a suave and sharp detective on the Beverly Hills force. After a run-in with his captain, he finds himself demoted, but soon lands a job on the security detail for Centurion Pictures, one of the hottest studios. The white knight of such movie stars as Clete Barrow, the British leading man with a penchant for parties, and Glenna Gleason, a peach of a talent on the verge of superstardom, Rick is dubbed “the Prince of Beverly Hills” by society columnists. But when he unearths a murder cover-up and a blackmail scam, he finds himself up against West Coast wise guys whose stakes are do-or-die…
RICK BARRON HEARD THE HOWL of the engine from at least a block away. He was not happy to be sitting in a patrol car at the corner of Sunset and Camden at two A.M. on a summer evening in 1939; he was not happy to be wearing a badge with the rank designation of Police Officer, instead of the detective's badge he had worn until the day before; and he was not happy to be in a uniform, instead of a suit. The stiff, new cloth itched.
He looked to his right, toward Ciro's and the Mocambo and the rest of the clubs on the Strip. At this hour, Sunset was devoid of traffic, except for one set of large headlights rushing toward him at a high rate of speed. Rick started the patrol car. This might be fun, he thought.
Then he saw the other car. It was a Model A Ford coupe, and it was across the boulevard, coming toward him down Camden, about to stop at Sunset. Only it didn't stop. The little car drove right through the stop sign, moving slowly, toward the safety of Camden on the other side of Sunset. Rick's mouth dropped open; this couldn't be happening. He looked at the oncoming speeder and had just enough time to identify it as a Mercedes-Benz SSK, top down, before it struck the little coupe broadside. The powerful sports car had been doing at least sixty, Rick thought, and it had never even braked.
The coupe collapsed as if it had been made of tinfoil, absorbing nearly the entire force of the crash, then spun toward the side of the road and came to rest, hard, against a telephone pole. The Mercedes was not stopped, only deflected. It skidded sideways toward the opposite side of the street, struck the curb and rolled over, flinging its driver into a high oleander hedge before coming to rest in an upright position. Rick picked up the microphone.
"This is car 102. I've got a serious car accident at Sunset and Camden. Request an ambulance and another patrol car immediately."
The radio crackled. "Roger, 102, they're on their way."
Rick switched on the flashing light on top of his Chevrolet patrol car, drove across Sunset and stopped at the curb, next to what was left of the coupe. The street was still perfectly clear, with a wreck on each side. He jumped out of the car and started for the coupe.
Sheets of paper littered Sunset, and Rick picked up one. There was a picture of Paul Whiteman on the front: sheet music. He dropped it as he reached the coupe and looked inside. The car was a third of its former width, and the woman inside was barely distinguishable from a pile of cubed beef on a butcher's counter. Rick had never seen such gore. He reached into the car and picked up her left wrist, feeling for a pulse, but felt none. Nothing more to be done here.
The road was still empty of traffic. He ran across Sunset to the hedge and found the other driver lying facedown in the hedge. Rick turned over the unconscious man and saw that he was wearing a tuxedo. And he wasn't unconscious. The man coughed and sat up, leaning on his elbows. "Jesus H. Christ," he muttered. "What the fuck happened?" He had the makings of a fine shiner around his left eye.
Rick got a snootful of alcohol fumes. "You hit another car," he replied. "Are you hurt?"
The man shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. He was handsome, tanned, with thick blond hair and a well-trimmed mustache. "You've got to get me out of here," he said, grimacing. His beautifully even teeth gleamed under the streetlamp. His accent was British.
Then Rick recognized him. Sirens could be heard in the distance, and his mind worked at a furious pace, weighing options, considering gain against punishment. He decided. "Can you stand up?" he asked.
"I guess so," the man replied.
Rick helped him to his feet, took hold of a wrist and slung the man's arm around his neck. Rick was six-two, and the man was as tall. "Come on," Rick said, "we've got to move fast." He scurried across Sunset, half walking, half dragging, and got the man into the rear seat of the patrol car. "Lie down there, so nobody can see you," he commanded. He was about to get behind the wheel, when he had another thought. He ran back across Sunset to the wreck of the Mercedes, found his pocketknife and quickly unscrewed the license plates. Then he went to the driver's side, groped around the steering column and ripped off the registration certificate that had been secured there. As he stuffed it into his pocket, another patrol car arrived, siren dying.
"I've got one of 'em in my car," he said to the driver. "He doesn't seem to be hurt too bad. I'll take him to the hospital. You wait for the ambulance. The other one is hamburger."
"Okay," the other cop replied.
Rick ran for his car and got behind the wheel. "Where can I take you?" he asked.
"Find a phone," the man replied from the depths of the rear seat.
Rick started the car, made a U-turn and swung down Camden, driving fast. After two blocks, he saw a pay phone on a corner. "Who do you want me to call?" he asked.
A hand came up from the backseat with a small, black address book. "Call Eddie Harris," his passenger said. "Tell him what's happened. He'll know what to do."
Rick ran to the phone booth and closed himself inside it. The light came on, and he riffled through the book, looking for the number. The names there were a roster of Hollywood celebrities, most of them women; Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr were there. He found a home number for Harris, dropped a nickel into the phone and dialed. Harris was something at Centurion Studios; Rick wasn't sure just what.
"What?" an angry, sleepy voice barked into the phone.
"Mr. Harris, my name is Barron. I'm a Beverly Hills Police officer."
"Go on," Harris replied. His voice was calm now.
"I've got Clete Barrow in my patrol car. He's been in a bad accident; a woman is dead."
"How badly is Barrow hurt?" Harris demanded.
"He seems to be okay. He should be checked out at a hospital, though."
"No. Take him to Centurion, to his bungalow. I'll meet you there. What was your name again?"
"Barron." Rick spelled it for him.
"Hurry up," Harris said.
"Yessir." Rick hung up and ran for the car.
IT TOOK HIM LESS THAN ten minutes to reach the film studio, no flashing light, no siren. He slid to a stop at the gate. A guard, apparently warned he was coming, waved him on.
"First left, second right," the man in the backseat said. "Number 104."
Rick followed the directions.
"Right here," Barrow said from the rear seat. He was sitting up now.
Rick parked the car, slid across the seat, opened the rear door and helped his passenger out. He looked around. He was on what looked like a street of bungalows. He steered Barrow up the front walk of a pretty cottage with window boxes and a swing on the front porch. Barrow fumbled with a key and let them into the house.
Rick found himself in a beautifully decorated living room, furnished with every comfort. Barrow opened a door and switched on some lights in an adjoining room. Rick blinked in the glare. Barrow sat down at a wide dressing table with a big mirror surrounded by little lightbulbs. He looked carefully at his face in the mirror. "No real damage," he said, with some satisfaction. He felt his body. "Maybe some bruised ribs, and they'll have to shoot my right side only, but I can work." He got up and went back into the living room, to a bar. "You want a drink?" he asked.
"No, and you're not going to have one either," Rick said, removing a decanter of scotch from the actor's hand. "You're going to need to be as sober as possible."
The door opened and a sturdy-looking, balding man in his forties walked into the room. "Clete," he said, "are you all right?"
"Sure, Eddie," Barrow replied. "Thanks for coming."
"That's some shiner. We're going to have to shoot around it tomorrow. The doctor will be here in a minute. I want you checked out thoroughly. Get out of that tux and into a robe."
"Sure, Eddie. You want a drink? The cop won't let me have one."
"No," Harris replied. He turned to Rick and stuck out his hand. "I'm Eddie Harris," he said.
"Hello, Mr. Harris."
"Call me Eddie; everybody does. What's your first name?"
"Richard, but nobody has ever called me that, except my mother, when she was angry with me."
"Rick, is Barrow under arrest?"
"Not unless you want him to be," Rick replied.
"Good man. Come and sit down for a minute, and let's talk."
Rick followed Harris to a pair of leather armchairs before a fireplace and sat down in one, removing his uniform cap.
"That uniform looks brand-new," Harris said, "but you don't look like a rookie."
"I'm not. It's just my first day back in uniform. I seem to have put on a little weight since the last time I wore one."
"How'd you get busted? What was the beef?"
"I was seeing a young lady who turned out to be my commanding officer's niece," Rick said. "The captain and I didn't see eye to eye about it."
"I'll bet," Harris said. "Is she pregnant?"
"What was your job before?"
"Detective, assigned to Homicide and Robbery."
"That's a plum assignment, isn't it?"
"Now you're a patrolman. It's a long way to fall."
"You're telling me."
"Sounds like you don't have much of a future with the Beverly Hills Police Department."
"Let's say Chief Blair doesn't have to worry about his job."
"I've seen you somewhere before, but I can't place you."
"I get around, I guess. Probably a restaurant or a club."
"That's it: at the bar at Ciro's, more than once."
"I've been there more than once."
Harris nodded. "Tell me what happened tonight. I want it straight—everything."
"I was sitting in my patrol car at Sunset and Camden. Barrow came from the direction of the Strip, doing at least sixty. He struck a Model A coupe that ran a stop sign. The woman driver was killed instantly. Barrow's car rolled, and he was thrown into a hedge."
"What did you do?"
"I called for an ambulance and a patrol car to deal with traffic, checked the woman, then checked on Barrow. When I recognized him, I got him out of there. The car's license plates are on the bar." He reached into his pocket. "Here's the registration."
"Good man. Let me give you a little lesson in Hollywood damage control: The woman drove right out in front of Barrow, so she was at fault. He was driving the speed limit; he didn't smell of liquor; he asked to be brought here, instead of a hospital. Got that?"
Rick nodded. "If you can, you ought to send a tow truck over to Sunset and Camden to get Barrow's car out of there. You don't want those two cars compared in newspaper photographs. The coupe got much of the worst of it."
Harris picked up a phone next to his chair, dialed a number, barked some orders and hung up. "It'll be out of there in half an hour."
Simultaneously, Barrow came out of his dressing room in a robe, and a man came in the front door, carrying a satchel.
"Doc," Harris said, turning toward the man, "Mr. Barrow's been in a car accident. I want him checked out thoroughly, and get some ice on that eye, will you?"
"Right," the doctor said. "Mr. Barrow, let's go in the other room." He turned back to Harris. "You want a blood sample taken?"
"Yeah," Harris said, turning to Rick. "You been drinking at all tonight?"
"Roll up your sleeve."
Rick did as he was told, and the doctor removed a syringe from his bag, swabbed the arm with alcohol and drew some blood.
Harris stood up and held out a business card to Rick. "You may not have much of a future with the police," he said, "but you just might have a future with Centurion. Call me tomorrow morning."
"All right," Rick replied, pocketing the card.
"What's your captain's name?"
"Don't speak to him unless you have to. If you have to, stick to the story. I'll call him first thing in the morning."
RICK WAS BACK AT THE accident site before the ambulance left. A fire engine was present, and two firemen were working on the wrecked coupe with crowbars, while two patrol cars stood by. The Mercedes was nowhere in sight.
A sergeant got out of a car and walked over. "Where the hell have you been?" he demanded.
"I took the passenger who was still alive to a doctor," Rick said.
"Is he all right?"
"He seems fine."
"Was he drunk?"
"I observed nothing that would make me think so." He took a glass tube from his pocket and handed it to the sergeant. "I witnessed the doctor take a blood sample," he said, but he didn't say whose. "I'd like you to take custody of it."
"All right," the sergeant said. "You said you took him to a doctor. Not a hospital?"
"He didn't seem badly injured, and he insisted on seeing his own doctor."
"Was this guy somebody . . . I ought to know about?"
"He was Clete Barrow. A Mr. Eddie Harris at Centurion Studios said he would speak to the captain."
The sergeant nodded. "I'll tell the captain about this. You stay away from him. Write an accident report and have it on my desk before you go off duty."
"Right," Rick said. "Can I go back to the station and do it now? Tomorrow's my day off."
"Go ahead. And I don't want you talking to the press, you understand? If they track you down, refer them to the captain."
Rick nodded. The sergeant walked away, and Rick looked over at the remains of the Ford coupe. Two firemen had done their work, and now the ambulance men were loading the mangled remains of the woman onto a stretcher. He felt for the woman, but she shouldn't have run that stop sign. His conscience, such as it was, was clear.
RICK WAS WAKENED BY THE ringing telephone at nine A.M. He let it ring three times, then picked it up. "Barron," he groaned.
"I saw your report," the captain's voice said. "Is that the way it happened?"
"That's the way I saw it, Captain."
"It better be correct in all respects."
Rick didn't reply to that.
"Where is the Mercedes?"
"I don't know. It was gone when I got back to the scene. A Mr. Eddie Harris said he'd call you."
The captain hung up without another word.
"Miserable son of a bitch," Rick said aloud. He reached for his cigarettes before he remembered he had quit smoking some weeks before. He swung his feet over the side of the bed and stood up, stretching. He'd had only three or four hours of sleep—he'd have had more, if the captain hadn't called—but he felt pretty well. At twenty-nine, he could stand the strain. He showered, then fixed himself some breakfast. He retrieved the LA Times from outside his door and scanned it as he ate. There it was, on page four:
PIANIST KILLED IN SUNSET BLVD ACCIDENT
Somebody got it in the paper at the last minute, he figured. That way, there was no time for anybody at the paper to investigate before they went to press.
Lillian Talbot, a professional musician, was killed in a traffic accident on Sunset Boulevard early this morning. Police say Miss Talbot, who was on her way home from a party at which she had played the piano, ran a stop sign at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Camden Drive and drove into the path of an oncoming car, the resulting crash killing her instantly. The other driver was examined by a doctor and pronounced unhurt. The Beverly Hills Police Department released a statement that said, in part, "The accident was witnessed by one of our officers on patrol, and a thorough investigation indicates that Miss Talbot was at fault. A test of the other driver's blood found no trace of alcohol, and no charges will be brought against him.
Well, that wrapped it up neatly, Rick thought. He washed the dishes and put them away. Rick was neat by nature, and, as a result, the little apartment in West Hollywood seemed a better place than it really was. He got dressed, and in changing the contents of his pockets from the uniform to his civilian clothes, he came across Eddie Harris's card. "Edward R. Harris, Executive Vice President," it read. Rick picked up the phone and called the number, which turned out to be a direct line.
"Mr. Harris's office," a woman's voice said.
"My name is Rick Barron. Mr. Harris asked me to call him this morning."
"Oh, yes, Mr. Barron," she replied. "Mr. Harris would like it if you could come to see him at four o'clock this afternoon. Would that be convenient?"
"Yes, it would."
"There'll be a pass for you at the main gate. Come to the administration building. The guard will direct you."
"I'll be there at four." Rick hung up. A future for him at Centurion? It was nice to know there might be a future for him somewhere.
RICK DRESSED IN HIS BEST SUIT, drove his Chevrolet coupe down to the Beverly Hills Hotel and went to the barbershop. He had a shave, a haircut and a manicure and, feeling fresher, had a club sandwich in the garden of the Polo Lounge. He couldn't really afford all this anymore, in his reduced circumstances, but he felt like keeping up appearances. Word had already gotten around about his being busted, and he wanted to be seen doing the usual things. He didn't want people feeling sorry for him. He spoke to a few people he knew, left a generous tip and went back to his car. He didn't have anything to do until four, so he drove out to Santa Monica, to Clover Field, and parked at the tin hangar that was Barron Flying Service. He looked into the office and found only the bookkeeper.
"He's in the hangar," she said, barely looking up from her ledgers.
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2005
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Hachette Book Group