By H. P. Oliver

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(Excerpted from)
Chapter One

Tuesday—August 16, 1938
Winchell's Motor Court–10721 Washington Blvd., Culver City

While it is a generally accepted fact that dead people tend to remain in that state, whoever was responsible for the two bodies in room 12 of Winchell's Motor Court wasn't taking any chances.  There were enough bullet holes in them to make Swiss cheese jealous.

The guy in the seersucker sport coat next to the door was short and stocky with one of those thin little moustaches that are so popular these days. There'd been a lot of Latin in his blood, but he didn't have much of it left.  Most of his blood was soaked into the room's threadbare beige carpet.

The other fellow was on the floor across the room with his back against the wall.  He'd left a dark smear of blood on the faded pink and blue wallpaper as he slid to the floor.  This one was much bigger than the first guy and was dressed to the nines in a classy white dinner jacket that was no longer very white nor very classy.

I took all this in during one glance around the dingy little room, after which I turned around and walked back out into the bright mid-morning sunshine.  There, I gulped in several lungful's of more or less fresh air to flush out a death stench that was so strong you could taste it.

The two dead guys weren't my problem, and there were more than enough cops around to handle the situation.  I figured they could get along just fine without my help, so I walked across the parking lot, which was filled to overflowing with Culver City Police Department squad cars, and leaned against the lone vehicle representing the Los Angeles Police Department at this morbid little gathering.  It was the car I arrived in and I intended to continue leaning on it until Detective Lieutenant Don Chambers finished his business in room 12.

Chambers was once my boss, but that was a long time ago.  Now he was just a friend who agreed to help me out with a feature story I planned to broadcast about the gambling ships anchored off the southern California coast.  That was why I spent most of the previous night on a train and why I was back in southern California for the first time in nearly two years instead of behind a microphone at radio station KDG in San Francisco.  The trip seemed like a good idea when I called Chambers a few days ago and asked him to help me out, but now I was beginning to wish I'd never set foot on the Southern Pacific San Francisco Lark streamliner that brought me here.

It wasn't just the stench of death in room 12.  It was also seeing the old Central Division Headquarters on First Street again and hearing radio calls directing squad cars to familiar locations as we drove around in Chambers' black unmarked Ford sedan.  Most of all, it was knowing that for every honest, hardworking cop like Chambers on the LA police force there were two or three guys supplementing their pay checks by looking the other way every time they passed a whorehouse, backroom bookie joint, or some other criminal operation under the control of local and east coast mobs.

All those things were fixtures from a part of my life I once drank into hazy oblivion, but encountering them again proved human memories aren't nearly as fragile as most of us think.  Mine were perfectly capable of withstanding repeated soakings in eighty-proof bourbon.

I lit a Camel and watched the traffic go by on Washington Boulevard, an area thoroughfare that ran more or less northeast to southwest from downtown Los Angeles to the coast at Venice.  Culver City is about halfway along the route, and like most of the little communities dangling from LA's coattails, it began life as a real estate development during the land booms of the teens and twenties.  But Henry Culver's burgeoning metropolis has something none of those other towns have.  It has the mighty lion of the film industry, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which we'd passed a block or two before reaching the motor court.  For that matter, Culver City also has the Hal Roach and Selznick studios, along with a few smaller lots.  In fact, it is said that as many motion pictures are made in Culver City as in Hollywood.

I glanced back toward room 12 and was surprised to see Chambers weaving his way in my direction through the maze of squad cars.  He hadn't been in there nearly long enough to do justice to a murder scene.  I guessed that was because we were out of the LAPD's jurisdiction, and even though he had a professional interest in one of the stiffs, his hands were tied until the local cops wrote up their reports and the county coroner did his business.  Chambers' invitation to the party was merely a courtesy extended by the Culver City cops.  Don got a radio call about the shooting just before he picked me up at Southern Pacific's Central Station an hour ago.  Since Culver City was more or less on the route to our intended destination, we were making a slight detour.

Watching Chambers approach, I was struck by the notion that the man hadn't changed one iota during the five years since I left the force to begin my somewhat less than meteoric career as a crime reporter at the Los Angeles Times.  For me that was two careers ago, but Chambers was still carrying the same gold-plated badge and wearing the same wrinkled sport coats that, even draped over his chunky frame, looked like they were at least a size too large.  His thinning hair was still combed across the top of his head to hide a bald spot, and he still had the sort of pleasant features that remind you more of a favorite uncle than a tough veteran homicide cop.
The first words out of his mouth, however, quickly shattered the kindly uncle illusion.  "Still ain't got no stomach for blood and gore, huh?"

"Hell, no.  Blood doesn't bother me," I lied, "But those mugs are your problem, not mine.  I was just takin' up space in there."

"I see."  The sarcasm in Chambers' voice made it clear he wasn't buying my story.  He added, "Ya know, Park, you were one of the best homicide detectives I ever knew.  If it weren't for that squeamish gut of yours, you'd have made Lieutenant by now.  Hell, I'd probably be workin' for you!"

"Yeah, wouldn't that be fun?"

With a gesture so familiar it seemed as if he last did it five minutes ago instead of five years ago, Chambers stuck a big paw inside my jacket and pulled the Camel pack from my shirt pocket.  Putting a cigarette between his lips, he stuffed the pack back in my pocket and said, "Light me, will ya?"

I spun the spark wheel on the brass trench lighter my old man kept as a souvenir of the Great War and held up the flame.  He puffed a couple of times to get the fag going and mumbled, "Thanks."

We climbed into his Ford and Chambers turned right onto Washington toward the coast.  There was a frown on his face as he shifted into third.  Knowing Don as I did, that meant one of two things.  Either something he saw in room 12 was puzzling him or his breakfast wasn't sitting well.  Guessing the first of those two possibilities was more likely, I let my curiosity get the best of me.

I said, "Which one was yours?"

"Huh?  Oh, you mean back there?  The big guy in the white coat.  Name was Arturo Bellaguisi.  How's that for a moniker?"

"Sounds like he should own a spaghetti joint with red and white checkered table cloths."

"Yeah, he shoulda.  He'd have lived longer in the spaghetti business."

"What was his business?"

Chambers looked over at me.  "You sure ask a lot of questions for a guy who don't want to be a cop."

I smiled at him.  "Just curious."

"Yeah, well my old pal Arturo was in the mob business."

"Chicago, New York or local?"

"New York.  He was one of Bugsy Siegel's boys, which means he was workin' for Charlie Luciano.  Kind of a jack of all trades—bagman, enforcer, whatever needed doin'."

"What got him killed?  Did he cross Bugsy?"

Chambers thought for a moment, and then said, "No, I don't think so.  Crossing the mob ain't very healthy."

"Well, in case it escaped your notice, Mr. Bellaguisi isn't exactly in the pink of health at the moment."

"Yeah, but if he was crossin' Charlie Lucifer, they'd have handled it different."

"I don't know about that.  What I saw in there sure looked like a professional job.  One with a message attached."

"That's what's botherin' me.  Arturo really upset somebody's apple cart, that's for sure."


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