“Nice to see you too, Brogan,”
said Baker, smiling and quite used to his partner’s offhand slurs. Brogan Abraham Connolly was a large, loud and foul-mouthed, but (mostly) good-natured Irishman with flaming red hair and mutton chops that had gone out of style sometime after the First World War. His bright green eyes had a one-up on his hair, but it was only his mouth that fought—and usually won—as the most recognizable part of his person. Baker would have pegged him as an anti-Semitic bigot long ago if he hadn’t seen proof that Connolly hated everyone the same, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Between them, they had the highest track record of closing more cases than anyone else in the department and, therefore, bonded over this common ground more than anything else.
Today, Connolly wore a plaid suit that was being pushed to its limits, giving him the look of a giant orange-haired gorilla who moonlighted as a used car salesman.
“I was just telling Mickey here that if you hadn’t shown up within the next five minutes, we’d sent out an APB on a big-nosed Sheenie fitting your description,” said Connolly with a chuckle that sounded more like a bark.
In truth, Morris Baker did not fit the “typical Jewish look,” no matter how many jokes or comments Connolly made to the contrary. His nose was thin, but not a crooked beak like so many of his kinsmen were accused of possessing. His eyes were a murky dark brown and had been (not surprisingly) somewhat sunken since the end of the war. In fact, the only feature that hinted at his ethnicity was his slightly curled hair upon his somewhat deflated head, which was as brown as his eyes, so dark that it looked black in all, but the most selective lights.d
Also present in the hall were uniformed officers Mickey Sheenan and Michael Bletchley; no other plainclothes detective would dare touch a case when the dynamic duo of Connolly and Baker were already on it, not unless they wanted to duke it out with Connolly who often claimed he had “the punching power of Pico Robertson.” Whatever that alliteration meant, no one wanted to find out.
“Hell, I was half asleep vhen you rang, ”You have—half—have to give me time to get dressed, or I’d show up viz my shirt on backvards and my, how you Americans like to say? Yes, my pecker out,” replied Baker, his eyes finally adjusting to the house’s weak light, at which point he realized he was standing in a wide hallway painted canary yellow and adorned with framed film posters: The Maltese Falcon, In This Our Life, Across the Pacific. The beautiful, toughened and pudgy faces of Bogart, Astor, de Havilland and Greenstreet all stared back with dramatic faces and phrases like:
BOY, WHEN BOGART BOFFS THOSE JAPS…YOU CAN FEEL IT!
Although he wasn’t a frequent attendee of the movie houses, Baker knew who Bogart was. Everyone in this town—and the world—knew who he was: McCarthy’s key propaganda tool in fighting Communism. Even if he looked half dead after his nasty battle with cancer a few years back, he was still the iconic manly symbol of America. He’d played a key general in that recent sci-fi horror flick It Came From Planet Communist! In head-turning 3-D! (essentially a remake of Red Planet Mars). Baker had found the blue and red paper glasses far from head-turning; Head-ache inducing was more like it.
And yet, Baker didn’t recognize any of the films on display in these posters. Granted, he had arrived after the war and perhaps some of these had been made before his arrival in America, but he surely would have heard of them, wouldn’t he, especially if they involved Bogart? Maybe he had, but most of the films these days—under the supervision of the government’s Department of Motion Pictures–were basically the same: Communist tries to ruin way of life and the brave American democratic capitalist hero stops them. His confusion must have played on his face because Connolly piped up again in his gruff voice,
“I was confused for a second there too, Baker. Haven’t seen these films in over ten years. In fact, no one has!” He smiled when Baker’s eyes widened in understanding. “Hueys banned them once the threat of Reds became too great. Didn’t want people watching stuff that didn’t keep them on their toes, you know,” he finished with a sardonic smile.
Baker straightened up from his inspection of the posters. “So I assume the maker of these pictures is around here some-vhere viz-out a pulse?”
“Right down here, as a matter of fact,” said Connolly, pointing to a brighter room off the darkened hallway. Baker headed in that direction, briefly noticing a kitchen at the far end and a set of stairs that would probably lead to the house’s lower levels. As he walked through the slightly arched opening, a sudden flash of light exploded, partially blinding him. Tiny lights popped in front of his eyes, the form of a man in a long trench coat and fedora taking photographs came into blurred view.
“Yeshu! You could varn a man!” murmured Baker as he rubbed his eyeballs with dry knuckles.
“Sorry, Morris,” apologized Harold Du Vay, already unscrewing the flash bulb from his cumbersome Graflex Speed Graphic camera and replacing it with a new one from a yellow box stenciled with the word SYLVANIA in big blue letters. “Didn’t see you there. You see the lighting in here? It’s perfect!”
Baker let out an agitated sigh. Of all the photographers, the station had to send, it was the one who fancied himself an artist. To call Harold Du Vay a perfectionist was an understatement to perfectionists everywhere. Harold was so detail-oriented that he sometimes forgot he was taking pictures of corpses, not actors and models. He’d have made one hell of a director of photography in the movies if the background checks weren’t so stringent and the president’s cronies didn’t get first priority.
“I hadn’t noticed,” replied Baker who could see how the early morning sun shined lazily in from the high glass windows that were situated on both sides of the wood-paneled room. It was handsomely furnished with bright red Czech armchairs with spindly legs and a black rectangular sofa, which faced an RCA color television set supported by gold-tipped appendages. Sitting atop an immaculate glass coffee table was an overflowing ashtray and a small pile of hardcover books, the top one of which was about the history of tramp steamers. A polished record cabinet, complete with a top-of-the-line Zenith stereo system, sat in the corner to the left of the television. The player was still on and a faint crackling could be heard from the speakers, a sure sign that a record had reached its end.
Baker took in the sheer majesty and expensiveness of the area before his gaze finally settled on what Harold had been photographing: the bodies of two very dead men were huddled in front of the coffee table. One of them was slumped over in a Barca Lounger upholstered with brown leather. His hair was graying and his face deeply lined. The heavy bags under his eyes looked as if they were relieved to finally rest after many sleepless nights. He wore black high-waisted pants, house slippers, and a plain white undergarment shirt that had a nasty red stain in the chest area. One good shot to the heart at close range would have been enough to do the trick, figured Baker.
The second man was not as recognizable as he was lying face down on the white carpet, a pool of blood already soaked into it. He wore a slim cut navy blue suit (way too dark to see any bullet’s entry or exit) and the tan soles of his wing-tipped shoes faced the ceiling. Next to the body was a swede ottoman, which he must have been sitting on before he had been pumped. Baker turned to Connolly who had followed him into the room.
“How’d you find out about this?” asked Baker.
“Anonymous tip,” replied Connolly, scratching his freckled nose.
“Half you ID’d them yet?”
“We believe so. The fellow on the chair there,” he said, pointing to Barca Lounger corpse, “Is John Huston. Former film director before the industry came under government regulation. Hasn’t worked in movies in over a decade, but he directed all those pictures you saw out in the hall there. Wasn’t too hard to get a fix on who he was. After all, it’s his house!”
“It is?” asked Baker.
“Didn’t you notice the ‘H’ on the mailbox before you walked in here? Thought your people were more observant than that, Baker. But yes, it’s Huston alright and this is his humble abode. Nice place too, if you ask me.”
Harold snapped another photo before Baker asked his next question:
“And this one?” He pointed to the man on the floor. Connolly reached inside his checkered jacket pocket and pulled out a square piece of leather, which he threw to Baker.
“Found this on him,” said Connolly, also producing a pack of Pall Malls, pulling a cigarette out with his yellowing teeth. Baker caught what turned out to be a very worn billfold. Opening it up, he found $150 in cash, a bent photo of two young girls, and a New York driver’s license issued to one Walter Cronkite. The name stirred something in Baker. He’d seen this man before, seen the slicked-back hair and thin mustache on television.
“This man is a reporter for CBS,” he said at last.
“You could be on one of those quiz shows with brains like that, you know? said Connolly with a puff on his cigarette and a sarcastic smile. “Yes, an on-the-ground reporter. Or was, I should say. Did a series on the nuclear drills in Korea a while back. ‘You Are There.’”
“’You Are Here,” Baker corrected his partner. Cronkite was an ambitious young journalist who wanted to put viewers in the thick of the action with engaging pieces that used both real-life and dramatized footage. Like they were actually there. You Are Here didn’t last more than one sweeps period.
“Right, right,” Connolly replied waving an impatient hand through the smoke cloud of his Pall Mall. “The real question is…”
“Vhat is he doing all ze vay out here?” finished Baker, silently cursing himself for letting his accent get the better of him again. “Anything else on ze bodies?”
“Not a thing.”
Baker frowned. “Strange, no?”
“A big-time journalist and not a notepad or recording device on him? I’ve never seen a news man without one or the other. You’ve seen that putz Sullivan skulking our offices. If Cronkite vaz interviewing Huston or doing a piece on ze film business before it was regulated, shouldn’t he have come prepared?”
“An excellent question, Detective Baker!” boomed a slick voice. Baker and Connolly turned around in unison to see two strangers in long trench coats (Baker noted that it was way too hot for such a wardrobe choice) and wide-brimmed fedoras standing in the entrance to the living room.
“Shit,” whispered Connolly in an annoyed voice that was only loud enough for Baker to hear. “Hueys.”
Baker could already tell thanks to the copper pins on their lapels in the shape of a fist, embossed with the stars and stripes.
“May we introduce ourselves?” said the tall, handsome man on the left who had a strong chin devoid of any stubble. His suit, under the coat, was of a very light grey, giving him the appearance of a storm cloud that had gained consciousness. “I am HUAC Inspector Waldgrave and this is my partner HUAC Inspector Hartwell.”
Hartwell was about two feet shorter than Waldgrave, but what he lacked in height, he made up for in bulk. He had almost no neck and his beady hazel eyes shifted back and forth in their sockets, making him look like a wary cave man being hunted by some unseen prehistoric beast. Framed between the two government inspectors was a nervous-looking Charles Ward, LA’s Chief Medical Examiner.
“And why, may I ask, are McCarthy’s Boys on our crime scene?” asked Connolly in a voice that didn’t betray the snarl behind it. He was playing a dangerous game. Pissing off a Huey officer almost never ended well for the instigator. Baker could see his partner scratching the area of his jacket that concealed his gun holster and the double action revolver that sat snugly inside it.
“Due to certain circumstances that you need not bother with, Detective Connolly” crooned Waldgrave in his silky voice, “this investigation has come under government jurisdiction. Myself and Inspector Hartwell have been assigned to the case.” He turned to Harold who almost fainted. “Mr. Du Vay, you will forfeit all the film you have taken here today to the HUAC offices on West Temple Street.” He turned to Charles who was cowering in fright, his leather bag of medical instruments shaking ever so slightly. “Mr. Ward, you will submit your report straight to me, is that understood?”
“Y-yes. Yes!” piped Charles.
“Where are the usual Hueys on the LA beat?” asked Connolly, tempting the fates once again. “What were their names, Kirk and Weston?”
Waldgrave looked angrily at Brogan. Clearly, Hueys didn’t like the nickname the public had come up with for them.
“Kirk and Weston were reassigned to the Midwest,” replied Walgrave coolly.
“What’s that crackling?” grunted Hartwell. Everyone was silent before turning their heads to the record cabinet. Waldgrave strolled over to it and pulled back the lid.
“Ah, Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ Are you a fan, Detective Baker?” he asked with a cruel smile, pulling the needle off the record so the faint pops and crackles stopped with an uneasy abruptness.
For a moment, Baker’s veins seemed to constrict and the darkness threatened to overtake him. He swayed, but fought it and kept his face calm, forced himself to look down at Cronkite’s body instead of at Waldgrave. He had heard the song before, of course, but that was another life and in that life it was called Ritt der Walküren. He pulled out his own pack of Kools (the menthol helped hide the alcohol scent on his breath and plus, he sappily liked the commercial with that coal-hopping penguin–your mouth feels clean, your throat refreshed!) and used the lighting of one as an excuse not to answer.
And looking down…Wait! What was that? Cronkite’s right hand wasn’t splayed out like his left. It was curled tightly into a fist. Baker had one chance.
“Damn!” He dropped his cigarette next to the body and knelt down with his back to the HUAC agents. “Zees stupid slippery hands of mine!” he announced as he pried the dead man’s rig mortised fingers apart–not without some difficulty–to reveal a small and crumpled piece of paper, which he swiftly swiped up and stashed in his jacket pocket.
Baker stood to face the Walgrave and Hartwell again, placing the cigarette in his mouth as he did so. He smiled.
“Vell, it was nice to meet you two gentlemen. My partner and I vill be leaving now.” Connolly’s jaw dropped at this statement.
“Smart kike,” murmured Hartwell, motioning for Harold to hand over his camera with one incredibly beefy hand.
Baker grabbed his partner by the collar as Charles opened his bag and began to examine the bodies.
Back down the hall, past the film posters, and outside into the morning sunshine. Bletchley and Sheenan were smoking with the young officer Baker had seen when he arrived. As he and Connolly neared the police-issue Del Rays and the jet black 1940 Cadillac V-16 that must have belonged to the HUAC officers, Connolly rounded on his partner:
“What the fuck was that about, Morris?! Just gonna be a lap dog for the Hueys, then? Gonna let them step all over you? That’s our damn crime scene and you know it for Christ’s sake!”
Baker puffed on his Kool and looked back toward the house just to be sure they were away from the prying ears of Walgrave, Hartwell and the other officers.
“Relax, Brogan,” he said while reaching into his pocket and bringing out the crumpled piece of paper. “I needed to put on that act back there so I could get this out of Cronkite’s hand and avay from zos two stooges. I just hope there isn’t a third lurking around. Zey alvays come in srees–threes, yes?”
Connolly stared at him then laughed.
“I knew something was going on. You’d never give up a case so easily. You’re one shifty Yid, you know that?”
“Please, sing me praises later,” replied Baker smoothing out the paper. “Look at the top here. Perforated. Mr. Cronkite must have had a notebook with him after all.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” whistled Connolly. “What does it say?”
Baker looked down at the three words scribbled hastily in thin cursive right smack dab in the middle of the lined page.
“It says ‘Beat The Devil’.”