"Keeps you turning page after page."—Washington Post
"Stuart Woods sends his fans into paroxysms of joy."—Associated Press
"A whale of a story."—New York Times
Rick Barron, a sharp, capable detective on the Beverly Hills force, finds himself demoted after a run-in with a superior officer, but he soon lands a job other cops only dream about: the security detail for Centurion Pictures, one of the hottest studios in the midst of Hollywood's golden age of the late 1930s. As the protector of the studio's interests, Barron looks after the elite of filmdom's stars - among them Clete Barrow, a British leading man with a penchant for parties, and Glenna Gleason, a peach of a talent on the verge of stardom." Rick's easy charm has society columnists dubbing him "the Prince of Beverly Hills," the white knight of movie stars, until he stumbles across a murder cover-up and a blackmail scam that threaten the studio's business and may have origins with some unsavory characters. When two suspicious deaths begin to look like a double murder, and an attempt is made on someone who has become an intimate friend, Barron knows he is up against wise guys whose stakes are nothing less than do-or-die. A dicey war of nerves is on.
"Keeps you turning page after page."—Washington Post
"Stuart Woods sends his fans into paroxysms of joy."—Associated Press
"A whale of a story."—New York Times
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 himsomewhere.
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.
Rick strolled into the hangar to find his father changing the oil in the smaller of his two airplanes. He was dressed in his suit trousers, a white shirt and a tie. Rick grabbed two sets of coveralls from a shelf, got into one and handed the other to his father. “Put these on, Dad. You’ll ruin your clothes.”
“You sound just like your mother,” Jack Barron said, struggling into the coveralls. “What brings you out here?”
Rick walked around the airplane and peered at the other side of the engine. “It’s my day off. I thought I’d see how you’re doing.” He picked up a wrench and tightened a fuel line fitting, then began looking for other anomalies.
“I’m doing fine,” Jack said. “You want to fly a party down to San Diego for me this afternoon?”
“Sorry, Dad, I’ve got an appointment at Centurion Studios at four.”
“They making you a movie star?”
“I don’t think that’s what they’ve got in mind,” Rick said, laughing, “but a guy named Eddie Harris seems to have something in mind.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Jack said. “I could use some business from those people, if you get a chance to mention it.”
“I’ll do that at the first opportunity.”
Rick noticed an airplane he hadn’t seen before—a Lockheed Vega—parked in a corner of the hangar. “Who belongs to the bush plane?” he asked.
“New customer. I’m leasing it from him.”
The two men worked on quietly for a while.
“I heard you’re back in uniform,” Jack said.
“Afraid so,” Rick replied.
“Heard it was something to do with a girl.”
“You want to hear about it?”
“Only if you want to tell it.”
“I was seeing this girl, and she turned out to be Captain O’Connell’s niece.”
“Wouldn’t think that would upset anybody all that much, unless you got her in trouble.”
Rick blushed, in spite of himself. “Well, yeah.”
“She still in trouble?”
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to be a grandfather.”
“Never say never.”
“Well, I guess you can handle it. You always land on your feet, you do.”
“You ever want to fly for me, come into the business, it’s here.”
“Thanks, Dad, I appreciate that.”
“So how long’s it going to take for you to get the gold badge back?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I want it back.” That was a lie.
“What do you want? I’ve always wondered.”
“Me, too,” Rick replied.
The two men continued working on the airplane.
THE GUARD AT THE CENTURION main gate wrote down Rick’s name and issued him a visitor’s pass, then gave him directions to the administration building. Rick put the pass on the dashboard of his ’32 Chevy coupe and drove onto the studio lot. The night before had been his first visit to a movie studio, and he was interested to see it in daylight. He drove down a street that looked like New York, with neat brownstones lined up, curtains in their windows. When he turned a corner, he saw that they were only facades, propped up by scaffolding.
He found the administration building and parked in a visitor’s spot. There was an array of expensive cars in the lot—sedans, convertibles and roadsters—with people’s names lettered in gilt on little signs. In Eddie Harris’s spot was parked a black Lincoln Continental convertible, very new. Rick entered the building and came to a desk where a uniformed studio guard took his name and directed him to an elevator to the third floor.
A receptionist greeted him and asked him to take a seat. The waiting room was lushly furnished, with movie posters on the walls and an array of trade publications arranged on a coffee table. He had been seated for only a moment when a handsome woman in her forties appeared.
“Mr. Barron? I’m Celia Warren, Mr. Harris’s assistant. Would you come with me, please?”
Rick followed her through another, smaller reception room, where two secretaries worked at desks, and into a large, sunny office furnished in dark mahogany furniture and paneling, with a conference table at one end and a group of sofas at the other. Eddie Harris was seated at his desk, his feet up, talking on the telephone. He waved Rick to a chair, and the assistant left them. A moment later, Harris hung up the phone.
“How you doing?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Get any sleep last night?”
Harris laughed, something he seemed to do easily. “What do you know about Centurion Studios?” he asked.
“You’re the new kid on the block, and you’re growing fast,” Rick replied. “That’s about it.” He read Variety once in a while.
“That’s it in a nutshell,” Harris said. “Sol Weinman and I were at MGM, until a couple of years ago. Sol had his own unit, and I was his production manager. When Irving Thalberg died, Sol didn’t want to work directly for Louis B. Mayer, so he rounded up some investors, including me, and with some of their money and a lot of his wife’s, he bought this property, which had been a poverty-row studio with a lot of real estate. He got it at Depression prices. It originally had two soundstages. We’ve built another two, and there are two more under construction. We’re already making two pictures a month, and by this time next year we expect to be making one a week. We’re hot, and the whole town knows it. Being new, we’ve had to borrow a lot of stars for productions, which puts our costs up, but we’re building a stable, and since we stole Clete Barrow from Metro, it’s getting easier. What Clark Gable is to Metro, Clete Barrow is to us.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Rick said.
“It is. Now, enough about us, let’s talk about you.” Harris opened a manila file folder on his desk and consulted the contents. “You know what I found out about you that really surprised me?”
Uh-oh, Rick thought.
“You and I were born sixteen miles apart.”
Rick relaxed. “Where were you born?”
“In Greenville, Georgia, right near Delano, where you were born.”
“Well, we left there when I was a kid and came out here, so, apart from a couple of visits to my grandparents there, my only claim to Delano is my birth certificate. What happened to your Southern accent?”
“It comes back when I’ve had a couple of bourbons. You know who else is from Greenville?”
“Y. Frank Freeman, who’s head of production over at Paramount. Frank and I grew up together, came out here together, but we were too close to work together, if you know what I mean.”
“I can see how that could be tough in business,” Rick said. He had no idea what he was talking about.
“How did you come to be born in Georgia?” Harris asked.
“My old man is from Minnesota, but he was a barnstorming pilot in the old days, and he met my mother when he blew through Meriwether County. It was a whirlwind courtship, and I’m the result. My mother and I stayed on for a while in Delano while he barnstormed and saved his money, then he joined the Lafayette Escadrille during the first war and flew over there for two years. When he came back, he moved us out here. He was planning a solo flight across the Atlantic, but his friend Lindbergh beat him to it.”
“Your folks still alive?”
“My mother died when I was ten. Dad has an FBO over at Clover Field in Santa Monica.”
“What’s an FBO?”
“Fixed Base Operation, as opposed to barnstorming. He has two airplanes—a Beech Staggerwing and a Lockheed Electra—for air taxi work, and he gives flying lessons and maintains a few airplanes for private owners.”
“What’s the FBO called?”
“Barron Flying Service.”
Harris made a note of it. “Maybe I can throw some business his way.”
“He’d like that, and you’d like him.”
“You fly, too, it says here.” Harris consulted his folder again.
“Yeah, I’ve got a commercial license and a few thousand hours.”
“Why did you become a cop? Didn’t you have any interest in the family business?”
“Not really. I enjoy flying for recreation and as a means of travel, but if you’re doing it for a living, you’re just a glorified taxi driver, and on somebody else’s schedule. I intended to become a lawyer, but after UCLA and a year of law school I found it pretty dry stuff. Torts were not for me. The practical application of the law on the street seemed a lot more interesting.”
“You were with the LAPD first?”
“Yes, for three years. I’ve been with the Beverly Hills Department for five. I switched to get a detective’s badge quicker.”
“You ever expect to get it back?”
Rick shrugged. “Not while Larry O’Connell can still draw a breath.”
“I talked with him about you,” Harris said.
“Then you must have a low opinion of me.”
“Nah. I can read between the lines. He couldn’t find anything bad to say about you as a cop. I talked to a few other people, too—cops, headwaiters, bartenders. You and I have the same barber.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if we’re kinfolks,” Rick said. “So what did you find out?”
“You’re unmarried, smart, good at your job, cool under pressure, discreet, reasonably honest, for a cop. You can hold your liquor and you get your hair cut twice a month.”
Rick laughed. “What else is there to know?”
“Not a hell of a lot,” Harris said. “I’m a good judge of character, and last night I made you for a fellow of some substance. You handled a difficult situation well, you were calm, thorough, and you wouldn’t let Clete Barrow have another drink. You saved this studio one hell of a lot of money. Barrow is in the middle of the most expensive production we’ve ever filmed on this lot, and if you’d arrested him it would have been very difficult to keep him out of jail. You can’t recast the lead in the middle of a picture, you have to start over. I like it that you didn’t try to put the arm on me, either.” Harris opened a desk drawer, took out an envelope and tossed it to Rick. “That’s a week of Clete’s salary,” he said. “You deserve it more than he does.”
The envelope felt thick, and Rick slipped it into his inside pocket without looking at it. “Thank you,” he said.
A buzzer sounded, and Harris pressed an intercom button. “Yes?”
“Mrs. Harris is here,” a voice said.
“Send her in.” He turned back to Rick. “My wife. This’ll just take a minute.”
A tall, blond woman in her mid-thirties swept into the room and gave Harris a big kiss. “Hey, honey,” she said.
Rick was on his feet.
“Rick, this is my wife, Suzanne,” Harris said.
She offered her hand, and Rick took it. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said.
“So has your husband, apparently,” Rick replied. “I’m very pleased to meet you.”
“Eddie is naturally nosy,” she said. “You’ll have to forgive him.”
“Would it do any good?”
“No.” She laughed. “I guess not.” She turned to her husband. “I need some money, sweetie.”
Harris reached into the desk drawer and came out with a check. “Put that in your account,” he said. “I hope it’ll last you a while.”
“Probably not,” she said. “Rick, it’s very nice meeting you. I have to run, dear. See you at dinner.” She whispered something in her husband’s ear, kissed him again and left.
“She’s lovely,” Rick said.
“Thanks. She is, isn’t she? I love it that she was never an actress. She was an agent, if you can believe it.” Harris walked around the desk. “Come on, let me show you the lot, and I’ll tell you what I have in mind.”
Rick followed along like a puppy. He was dying to find out what Harris had in mind.
OUTSIDE THE ADMINISTRATION BUILDING, they got into a small, open electric vehicle with a fringed canvas top, and Harris drove down the nearest street.
“You ever visited a movie studio before?” Harris asked.
“Not until last night.”
“Well, the big, hangar-like buildings are soundstages, where the interior shots of movies get shot, and sometimes exteriors, too. Over there is the props warehouse, and next door is costumes and makeup. The stars all have bungalows. All the other actors get made up en masse over there. Remember where the wardrobe department is.”
“Let me tell you about my problem, Rick,” Harris said. “You remember hearing about a murder-suicide in town last month?”
“Up in the Hollywood Hills somewhere?”
“That’s the one.”
“I read about it in the paper. It wasn’t in my jurisdiction.”
“Fellow named John Kean shot his wife—she was twenty years younger than he was, and the thinking is he thought she was screwing around. Then he shot himself. Kean was chief of the studio police here, and he was good at his job.”
“I see.” Now Rick began to get the point of his visit.
“I’ve already replaced Kean with his deputy, Cal Herman.”
Now Rick was back to square one. If he’d already replaced the guy, why was Harris talking to him?
“Cal’s a good cop, very competent,” Harris said, “but there were a lot of things that Kean took care of that Cal isn’t really suited for, if you get my meaning.”
“I’m not sure that I do,” Rick replied.
“As our chief of police, Kean was in charge of more than just studio security. He handled a lot of the more delicate matters having to do with the press, the public’s perception of the studio, and . . . well, the sort of thing you handled last night.”
“I see,” Rick replied.
“Have I explained what I do here?”
“No, you haven’t. Your card says ‘executive vice president.’ ”
“Right. I’m the number-two man at the studio. Sol Weinman is my only boss. As such, I do a lot of things. I produce movies; I hire and fire administrative and financial personnel, as well as producers and directors; I approve the casting of every movie we shoot; the head of production reports to me, and so do the studio police. I’ve got a public relations director, but I still spend a lot of time seeing that what gets into the press about the studio is favorable.”
“Sounds like a big job,” Rick said.
“It is, and it’s getting bigger. I’m trying to delegate more work, and with that in mind I’ve decided to create a new position at the studio. Let’s call it director of security. Instead of reporting directly to me, the chief of studio police will report to this man. I wouldn’t expect the new man to spend a whole lot of time overseeing the studio cops, because Cal Herman can do that. The principal job of the new man will be to protect the studio and its people from scandal, from the press, and, if necessary, protect it from the unwarranted attention of the police—sometimes even protect it from its own employees.”
“You mean, embezzlement, that sort of thing?”
“Yes, but more than that, I mean the behavior of some employees.”
“What kind of behavior?”
“The movie business attracts kids from all over the country—all over the world, even. They arrive here with nothing more than ambition and talent, and sometimes not even talent. If they find work, then they’re making more money than they would as secretaries and gas-pump jockeys, and sometimes it goes to their heads. They get into trouble, and it can reflect badly on the studio, unless these situations are handled. Often, we can do more to straighten out difficulties than the police can, and we can do it a lot more quietly and with less harm to everybody concerned.”
“I understand,” Rick said.
Harris was now driving through the main street of an Old West town. “We’re on the back lot now. We’ve got several hundred acres with various sets and open ground where we shoot war movies and Westerns and other outdoor situations.” He made a turn, and they drove into a street of neat houses, shaded by large trees. “Here’s our American small town,” Harris said.
“This is all amazing,” Rick replied, looking around. “A lot of it looks familiar from movies I’ve seen.”
“You go to the movies much?”
“A couple of times a week, I guess. I enjoy them.”
“That’s good. Back to business: Rick, you know when you called me last night? I don’t want to get calls like that. I want you to get them. I want you to be my new director of security at the studio. What would you think about that?”
Rick took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. “That sounds very appealing.”
“The movie business is very big, and it’s getting bigger, and Centurion is getting bigger, faster than almost anybody else. There are going to be a lot of opportunities here over the next few years. There might come a time when you’d want to do something else with us. I like to promote my own people, when I can. You do a good job for me, and I’ll be appreciative. I want you to remember that.”
“I certainly will.”
Harris had headed back toward the administration building now. “Here’s my offer,” he said. “Three hundred a week to start. When you’re worth it, you’ll get more. There are the usual perks—a pension plan, et cetera. You’ll have an office, but you’ll spend a lot of time out of it. I warn you, this is a twenty-four-hour-a-day job.”
“I’m accustomed to that,” Rick said.
Harris turned a corner and pulled into a large building that Rick had thought was a soundstage. It was filled with all sorts of vehicles—sedans, convertibles, police cars, ambulances, wagons and buggies, even stage-coaches. “This is our motor pool,” Harris said.
“That’s my car,” Rick said, pointing at a Chevrolet.
“It is.” Harris waved a man over. “Hey, Hiram, how you doing?” he asked.
“Pretty good, Eddie. This the guy?”
“Rick, this is Hiram Jones. He runs the transportation department.”
Rick shook the man’s hand.
“What do you reckon his car is worth?” Harris asked the man.
“I’ll give him three hundred for it.”
“Sell the man your car, Rick. We’ll find you something else to drive.”
“Done,” Rick said, grateful to be rid of his old crate.
Harris climbed out of the cart. “Let’s see what you’ve got, Hiram.”
Jones led them down a row of parked cars, and Harris stopped in front of a cream-colored 1938 Ford convertible. “This looks like you, Rick,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I’ll defer to your judgment,” Rick said, smiling.
“Put it in the admin parking lot, Hiram,” Harris said. “Come on, Rick, let’s get back. It’s getting late.”
Rick looked farther back into the building and saw Clete Barrow’s Mercedes. It looked a total wreck to him. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked Hiram Jones.
“Repair it,” Jones replied. “It’s impossible to replace.”
They got back into the cart and drove back to the administration building.
“One thing I didn’t ask you,” Harris said.
“How do you feel about Jews?”
“Just fine. I have no problem with anybody.”
“Good, because Jews invented this business, and most of the people who run it are Jewish. They’re great people, and I don’t like it when people call them yids or tell kike jokes.”
“I’ve got some poker buddies; we’re all gentiles. We call ourselves the ‘goy scouts.’ ”
“You’ll have to play poker with us sometime.”
“Thanks,” Rick said, “but I don’t play poker with people who are richer or smarter than I am.”
Harris grinned. “I think you’re going to work out just fine.” He led Rick through a door at one end of the administration building, past the reception desk and through a glass door marked “Studio Police.” Harris went to an open office door. “Cal,” he said, “come out here. I want you to meet your new boss.”
Cal Herman, in uniform, came toward Rick with his hand out. “You must be Rick Barron,” he said. “Glad to have you aboard.”
“Thanks, Cal,” Rick replied, surprised that Herman was expecting him.
“Come on, I’ll show you your office,” Harris said.
“See you later, Cal.”
“Sure thing, Rick. I’m available when you want to talk.”
Harris led Rick out of the police office and across the reception room to another door. A sign painter was lettering “Director of Security” in gilt, and below it, “R. Barron.” Harris opened the door and a secretary stood up at her desk. “Rick, this is Jenny Baker. She’ll be your secretary, if that turns out to be all right with both of you.”
“Hello, Jenny,” Rick said, shaking the girl’s hand.
“How do you do, Mr. Barron?”
“Rick, please.” She looked like the Central Casting all-American girl, he thought.
Harris led him into the adjoining office. It was a quarter the size of Harris’s, but still spacious, with a handsome desk, a leather sofa and chairs, a bathroom with a shower to one side and Centurion movie posters on the walls. There was a safe in one corner. “Will this do?” Harris asked.
“It certainly will,” Rick replied. “This is all a little overwhelming.”
Harris went to the desk and picked up a stack of cards from a silver tray. “Put these in your pocket,” he said.
Rick looked at the cards. “Richard Barron, Director of Security, Centurion Studios.” Below that were two phone numbers, one office and one home. “Very nice,” Rick said, “but this isn’t my home number.”
“We’ll talk about that tonight,” Harris said. “I want you to come to dinner at my house.”
“I’d be delighted,” Rick said.
Harris handed him a card with the address and phone number. “Seven o’clock, black tie.”
“I’m afraid I don’t own a tux, and it’s a little late to rent one,” Rick said.
“Go back to wardrobe and ask for Marge. She’s waiting to fix you up.” Harris steered Rick back to the reception area, where Celia Warren, Harris’s assistant, was waiting for them. “Celia, Rick is joining us as of this moment.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” she said. “Here’s a check for your car, Rick.” She handed him an envelope.
“I hope you’ve no problem with leaving the police department immediately,” Harris said.
“None whatsoever,” Rick replied, and he meant it. He walked out to the parking lot and saw the cream-colored convertible parked in a spot, which was reserved by a neatly lettered sign with his name on it. Harris had been very confident that he would accept the job.
He drove over to the wardrobe department. Marge was a motherly woman in her fifties, and she had a handsome tuxedo waiting for him.
“We made this for Clete Barrow,” she said, “and you’re about his size. Try it on.”
It fit as if it had been made for him. She found him a pleated shirt, a black tie, shoes and some cuff links and studs, too. “You’ll look very elegant,” Marge said as she showed him out.
ON THE WAY HOME, with his studio tuxedo on the backseat of the convertible, Rick stopped at the Beverly Hills City Hall, went into the police department squad room, borrowed a typewriter and wrote out his resignation. He took it to his captain’s office, knocked once and opened the door without being invited in.
“What do you want?” O’Connell said, glaring at him.
“To resign, Captain,” Rick replied, handing him the letter and placing his badge and Smith & Wesson revolver on the desk. “Effective immediately.”
O’Connell nearly smiled. “And good fucking riddance,” he said.
Rick closed the door behind him, walked out of the building and to his new car, seeming to float. As he tucked a copy of his resignation letter into his inside pocket, he felt the envelope that Harris had handed him earlier. He opened it, looked inside and quickly counted. Apparently, Clete Barrow made five thousand bucks a week. “My God, what a day!” he said aloud.
CLAD IN BORROWED ELEGANCE—a finely tailored mohair tuxedo, silk shirt and waistcoat and gleaming alligator shoes—Rick arrived at the Bel-Air address of Eddie and Suzanne Harris at ten minutes past the hour. He hoped he was only fashionably late.
His car was parked by an attendant, and he was greeted at the door by an English butler who was dressed as well as he. Rick had been in houses as impressive as this Greek Revival mansion, with its marble entryway and sweeping staircase, but usually when the owner had either been robbed or was lying facedown, bleeding into the Aubusson carpet. He tried to adopt the mind-set of a guest, instead of an official intruder.
The butler showed him into the living room, where the Harrises and another couple were standing before a cheerful fire.
“Ah, Rick,” Harris said, coming toward him, a martini glass in his hand, “good to see you.” He drew Rick toward the fire. “You met Suzanne earlier, of course.”
“I’m so happy you could come, Rick,” she said, offering her hand.
“So am I,” Rick replied.
“Rick,” Harris said, “I’d like you to meet our boss—or God, as we sometimes call him. This is Sol Weinman and his wife, Rebecca.”
“How do you do, Mr. Weinman, Mrs. Weinman,” Rick said, shaking hands with both.
“I’ve heard much about you from Eddie,” Weinman said. He was short and plump, with a fringe of white hair circling a hairless dome. “He’s needed someone like you for some time now, and I’m glad you’re coming aboard. You must drop by my office for a chat soon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Weinman, I’d like that,” Rick replied.
“And you must call me Sol. Everybody at Centurion is on a first-name basis. We don’t stand on ceremony like Metro and some others I could mention.”
“Thank you, Sol.”
A waiter appeared at Rick’s elbow with a tray of martinis, and he took one. As he did, two other couples were being shown in, and Rick found himself being introduced to Sam Goldwyn and William Wyler and their wives. The party was completed when Clark Gable and Carole Lombard arrived, accompanied by an attractive older woman, who turned out to be Sol Weinman’s sister, Adele Mannheim. He was in illustrious company, and he was finding it easy to get used to the idea.
After another half hour of chat, they were called to dinner, twelve around a table of glistening china, silver and crystal. Rick sent a silent prayer of thanks to his mother, who, when he was a boy, had drilled him in his table manners and which fork to use. He was seated between Carole Lombard and Adele Mannheim, and as dazzled as he was by Lombard, he was smart enough to pay a lot of attention to Mrs. Mannheim, since he had clearly been invited as her dinner partner.
“I was widowed earlier this year,” she confided, “and the Harrises have made a point of inviting me over regularly.” She leaned over and whispered, “I must say, I’m having more fun than when my husband was alive; he didn’t like going out.”
Rick listened closely to her every word and tried to charm without flattering too much. When she excused herself for a moment, he turned to Lombard, and was disappointed to find her engrossed in conversation with Wyler, who sat on her other side.
When dinner was concluded, the ladies went somewhere with Suzanne Harris, while the men remained at the table over coffee, port and cigars. Rick declined a cigar; he despised them.
“Sam,” Sol Weinman said to Goldwyn, “what do you think about this television thing? Do we have anything to worry about?”
“I don’t think so,” Goldwyn replied, in accented English. “A fuzzy little picture of baseball games and puppet shows is not going to take anybody away from a big screen in Technicolor, and you can say I didn’t say so.”
“Clark,” Wyler said, “would you act on television?”
“In what?” Gable replied. “A baseball game or a puppet show? And you can say I didn’t say so.”
Goldwyn wrinkled his brow. “That didn’t sound right, Clark.”
Everybody laughed except Goldwyn, who seemed surprised to find himself funny.
Rick took it all in, speaking only when he was spoken to, which wasn’t often.
They eventually joined the ladies in the library for coffee, and as ten o’clock chimed on a large clock in a corner, people began to leave. In five minutes, they were all gone. Harris had indicated that Rick should stay. They said good night to Suzanne, and she left them.
“Let’s take a walk,” Harris said, taking Rick’s arm. They left the rear of the house through French doors and followed a path around a high hedge until they came to a large swimming pool, lit from underneath. A cabana was at one end, and another building across the pool. “That’s one of the guest houses,” Harris said. He led the way around the pool and down another path, and shortly they came to a cottage, ablaze with light. “This used to be the gardener’s cottage before we bought the place, when the grounds were twice as large. Suzanne has done it up as another guest house, but we don’t really need it.” Harris opened the front door with a key and they walked through the cottage. There was a living room with a dining table at one end, a kitchen, a bedroom and a small room that had been done up as a study, with a desk and bookcases. “You like?” Harris asked.
“It’s beautiful,” Rick said.
“How would you like to live here?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I travel to New York on business now and then, and Suzanne wants somebody on the place besides the servants, who live in an apartment over the garage, and she likes the idea of an ex-cop being here. There’s a little garage out back, and another drive that goes directly to the street. You can come and go as you please, and we promise you privacy. I’ll charge you, say, a hundred a month? You’ll pay the utilities and the phone, of course.”
Rick turned to him. “Is this place the home number on my new business card?”
“I thought you’d like it,” Harris said, grinning.
“Like you say, Eddie, you’re a good judge of character.”
Harris handed him the keys. “And don’t even think of fooling around with my wife. She’s got a gun in her bedside drawer, and she’s a hell of a shot.”
Rick laughed, but he took it seriously.
“Come on, I’ll walk you back to the house. You can move in tomorrow.”
They strolled back up the path, arm in arm. “Let me tell you a couple of things about this business,” Harris said. “It’s a candy store, where women are concerned, and nobody expects you to be a priest, but try and be discreet. Sol doesn’t approve of his people getting blow jobs in their offices, and he’d like to think that every starlet who gets a walk-on part didn’t get it on the casting couch with one of his executives, and you’re one of his executives now.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rick said.
“By the way, you were smart to talk a lot to Adele tonight. She has Sol’s ear, and he respects her opinion about just about everything.”
“That was easy. She’s a charming woman.”
“I want you to take tomorrow to get moved in, and I want you to buy some clothes with some of that money I gave you. You’ll need to dress better than you did when you were a cop. If you didn’t, Sol would notice.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that, and thank you again for the money. You’re very generous, Eddie, and I appreciate it.”
“You earned it. The day after tomorrow you take on your first assignment from me.”
“And what is that?”