Authors: Peter Israel
For all my friends, and one especially
Maybe somewhere in Los Angeles you can still find the kind of private eye you used to read about in novels. You know the type: hat back on his head, feet up on the desk, a bottle of whiskey in the drawer and a day-old beard on his phiz. Hangs out downtown in one of those seedy old buildings, the ones with the elevator cages out in the courtyards, and on one side of him there's a chiropractor fronting for a lonely hearts racket and on the other a one-eyed dealer in rare coins. He talks tough, acts tougher, but deep down inside he's got a heart as soft as an oyster. Blondes go for him, also little old ladies with millions in their mattresses, also his secretary (played by Ann Blyth).
Maybe you could at that. Trouble is, they've torn down half of the downtown for a Kinney parking and what's left has been so chichi'd up that Philip Marlowe couldn't afford the down payment on a broom closet. The chiropractor's moved back to Fresno, the last time I saw Ann Blyth she was hustling a savings and loan association on TV, and those widows who used to walk in just when the lonesome stallion was dictating his memoirs now take their business elsewhere.
To shysters, for instance.
Or CPAs, or investment counselors, or head-shrinkers.
Or even me, now and then, but you won't find my name on the glass door because there is no glass door, and the only kind of killing I like to get involved in is when the body's already been glued back together and the organist at Forest Lawn is playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Sure I've got the heart of gold too, but there's only one person in this cruel world who knows the combination, and his name happens to be Cage.
On my card it says: Public Relations. That'll give you an idea how times have changed.
Which isn't to say California's all that different from the one Mr. Marlowe hung around in. Right, we've had a movie star for governor and you can get a fix in the local high school if that's your pleasure, or laid or blown or flagellated in any old neighborhood massage parlor. There's television instead of radio, Toyotas instead of Lincoln Zephyrs, and everybody wears long hair, including the quarterbacks of the L.A. Rams. But the crimes are still the sameâmurder, rape, extortion, you name itâand so's the system: a few people squeezing the many for money, without the many catching on to how it works.
Look at it this way. There are only two kinds of California people: those who've got it and those who want it. Those who've got it also want something else, call it peace or respectability, and the rest are willing to give them all the something else they can buy. On the one hand, the oil rich, the land rich, the inherited rich, the just plain filthy California rich; on the other, that army of scavengers and bloodsuckers: cops, shysters, politicians, judges, insurance investigators, newspapermen and just plain garden-variety blackmailers. More business goes on between the two kinds than you'd imagine, some of it even legal, but you'll never find the one hobnobbing in the laundromat with the other.
Which is where I come in.
Hush money, you could call it. The cover-up, the fix. Greasing the Wheels of Progress.
The gathering and suppression of information, better known as Public Relations.
It's not the cleanest work in the world, I'll admit, or the most moral, but the morality went out of me the night I shit in my pants up at the Ch'ongch'on, the winter of '50, and I'll take what's left over. I've got money in the bank, four wheels with air conditioning, a closetful of clothes, a pantryful of booze, and I know where enough of the bodies are buried to keep it all going till the earthquake dumps us into the Pacific. I get to sleep nights. In the mornings I can look down on the sweaty masses getting ready for another day in the meat-grinder, and all I have to do to change the view is cross the living room and watch the waves rolling in against the Santa Monica cliffs, much like they must have when Colonel Fremont was still in knickers.
So if it's Marlowe or Archer you're looking for, good luck to you, but I'd say your best bet these days would be to head for the corner drugstore and pick yourself up a paperback for a buck.
And friend, that's the last piece of free advice you'll get from yours truly.
The call had come in while I was down at the tennis courts. The biddy from the answering service gave me the rundown. There were the usual cats and dogs: some number called Karen who'd been trying to get through to me for two weeks, a custom car guy who wanted to show me something he'd worked out with the Mazda rotary, plus an urgent-urgent from a Mr. Curie of Curie, Etc., Etc. & Curie, attorneys-at-law in Beverly Hills.
The biddy was pushing this Karen. She said she'd gotten to know her over the phone. She had a lovely voice, she said. I didn't remember any Karen I wanted to remember and the Mazda rotary could wait for a rainy Saturday, but after showering down and a sandwich-and-Heineken's on the terrace, I got on the blower with George S. Curie Ill's English-speaking secretary. Verry.
“No, I'm teddibly sorry Mr. Cage, it's not something Mr. Curie will discuss over the telephone. But could you come round this afternoon, say at five sharp?”
“Time for tea?” I said.
“Could you come at five then?”
You could feel the frost on the hedgerows.
Yes I could, I said, and did.
It was in one of those little side streets off Doheny, a Tudoresque manse built for a family of twenty or so but discreet enough by California standards, with a putting-green lawn and a well-tended garden sloping up behind it and a discreet gold plaque by the front door with discreet engraving on it. Most of the high-powered legal talent these days hang out in the high rises along Wilshire or the Avenue of the Stars (sic) in Century City, but a few of the really class ones have gone English with a vengeance. A question of clientele. The Curies pander to the L.A. nobility, hell they belong to it, and the L.A. nobility still has a lot of trouble with its ancestry. To hear them tell it, the
must've been the size of the
, but for the overflow, who do they have to trace themselves back to, the Donner Party? So they deck themselves out with “solicitors” in Savile Row clothes and discreet castles, and if the shysters in question have never been nearer to Oxford or Cambridge than the campus of U.S.C., well, their secretaries will have to do.
There have always been two Curies, one at the top of the masthead, one at the bottom. For all I know they do it that way to save on stationery. The one time I worked for them before, my Curie, the III, was at the bottom. I never met the II, but I heard him clumping around in the attic overhead. Now he'd gone on to that big law firm in the sky, the III had taken over the top spot and presumably there was a IV around somewhere, even if they only had him licking stamps in the mailroom.
Nothing else had changed except the receptionist, who was too good to have come from anywhere east of Riverside. We admired each other quietly for about thirty seconds until the secretary lunged through a door, swinging her glasses like a field hockey stick. She doubletimed me down some steps and up some others into the library, a paneled affair with portraits on the walls and law volumes in glassed-in cases which looked like fake fronts but weren't, black leather armchairs and a discreet portable bar in one corner. A minute later to the second George S. Curie III slipped in, and he shook my hand as though he'd just touched a dishrag in a pile of clean handkerchiefs.
No, nothing had changed.
He sat across from me in that tired civilized way of the English club member who crossed his legs the day Chamberlain signed at Munich and hasn't uncrossed them since. The gray suit he wore, with vest, mightn't have been Savile Row at that but it wasn't Hongkong either. His hair was a little grayer, his cheeks had that pale gray sheen which made you think the barber had just gone out the back door, but the accent was one Charles Dickens never heard.
Pure California, you'd have to say.
“Do you read the newspapers?” he said.
“I watch TV too,” I answered.
“Then you already know about the Beydon business? Karen Beydon? The girl they call Karie?”
I guess it was my day for Karens, but you'd have had to be deaf and blind and constipated for the last forty-eight hours not to have heard of this one.
He sighed for the record and put on the expression of a mortician who's just laid out his mother.
We stared at each other.
“A terrible tragedy,” he said, lowering his eyes. “An only child, and the mother died less than three years ago, did you know that? She was lovely too, Karen I meanâKarieâthe pictures don't begin to do her justice. And gifted. I understand she wrote poetry, did you know that? Poor TwinkâI'm talking about Philip BeydonâI've never seen him buckle under pressure, but he doesn't know which way to turn right now. It's understandable, God knows. A man loses his wife, then his daughter, and for it to happen this terrible way, well â¦”
I guess if he'd worn glasses he'd have been wiping them about then. As is, he pursed his lips at me, and then the rest of the sigh went out of him.
He had little to add to the newspaper accounts, at least in the version he gave me, and he left out some of the less savory details and speculations, including my own. Maybe it's no longer news these days when a kid jumpsâor falls or is pushedâout a window, but when the kid is a Beydon and a Diehl and the family that spawned her has been in and out of the local blatts for years, not just the obits and the society columns but the financial section, even sports (I'd read something somewhere about “Twink” Beydon organizing a California challenge to the America Cup), then it's news all right, at least by L.A. standards. The more so since the window happened to be on the seventh floor of a brand new mixed dormitory, property of the Regents of the University of California. The more so since, in the absence of anything to go on and probably scared out of their bullet-proof vests, the local constabulary was still “investigating.”
The press had been having a field day. There was talk of an inquest, which led to rumors that the young poetess had been hopped to the eyeballs (my own personal and uncopyrighted theory), which led to innuendos that her seventh-floor aerie was a dope nest, or a love nest open to the public, or a revolutionary cell, or a whole lot else, most of it libelous if the subject had been around to sue. The track teams from the local TV stations had interviewed everybody in sight except the building janitor, who must have been holding out for a fee, and it had been front page in the
every breakfast, with pictures of the scrambled corpus next to another they'd dug up of Daddy holding baby Karen high in the air, and an editorial pissing and moaning about the violence of the new generation.