- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
There was no point in trying to talk to Major Castle.
We were sitting in the back of a big, 1940 custom-built Packard Darrin Victoria One-Twenty watching the coast go by and the sun go down. The driver was a tall, dry bolt of a man whose name I didn't know but found out later. Castle hadn't given it to me when he picked me up in front of my office on Hoover Street in Los Angeles.
Castle hadn't told me much on the phone when he had called. He said he was on a mission for General Douglas A. MacArthur. The mission involved me. He asked if I would meet him but the request sounded more like an order. It was the kind of request I might consider turning down if I had a few bucks in the bank and he hadn't suggested that the outcome of World War II was about to be laid on my battered desk.
It was September 1942, a clear Tuesday during which I had done some shopping—three pairs of socks and a new shirt from Hy's for Him on Melrose. That left me with enough for a bag of tacos from Manny's and gas to get my bleached Crosley through the next week.
Major Castle had come when I clearly needed a client.
I had shaved in the morning, gone shopping and waited to change into a pair of new socks and the fresh shirt until I got to the office I shared with Sheldon Minck, D.D.S. Sheldon was off that day on a mission of his own, the nature of which he did not share with me.
I had suggested to Castle that I meet him in front of the Farraday Building. The alternative would have been for him to pass through the dark pit of tooth decay that was Shelly's dental office, past the spit sink, into the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I used for an office. It wasn't impressive enough for army brass.
Just before four, when I was scheduled to meet Castle, I had checked my face in Shelly's mirror. Flat nose, graying hair, lopsided smile. The body was a slightly bulky 165 pounds on my five-nine frame, but that didn't hurt when your business was looking like a mug and occasionally acting like one. A half century of abuse had molded my body for the job. The bad back didn't show and the scars were covered by clothing.
I thought I was ready for Castle. The Packard was waiting in front of the building, windows closed in spite of the eighty-three degree heat. The driver was standing next to the car, not leaning on it, his hands at his sides, his crisp tan suit and tie in contrast to my almost matching baggy trousers and jacket. My tie was loose. I'd gotten a deal from Hy on the shirt but the collar was a half size too small.
"Mr. Peters?" the driver asked softly over the rumble of traffic and the laughter of a woman shopper and her dour companion, who blitzkrieged past me on the sidewalk.
"Peters," I agreed.
The driver nodded toward the Packard and got in the driver's seat. I opened the front door and a voice from the back said, "Back seat."
I closed the front door, opened the back one, and slid in next to a man who looked as if he had been dipped in cement the day before. The man was gaunt and gray. His hair, cut close, his face, his hands, his eyes and even his suit were gray. He turned those gray eyes on me and I didn't like what I saw in them. Shelly's office wouldn't have bothered Major Castle. He had seen far worse.
"Major Oren Castle," he said, holding out his right hand as the car pulled into traffic.
I took his hand. In spite of the heat in the closed car, the hand was dry and cool.
"Toby Peters," I said. "Where we going?"
"Not far," he said.
"You mind telling me what this is about?" I asked.
"Yes," he said and looked forward.
That was all anyone said in the car for the next hour and a half as we drove over to Daly Street and headed north. Every few minutes I'd take a look at Castle to see if I could catch him blinking. I never did.
I watched the landscape which was fine but I'd seen hills before. Boredom set in after three minutes and then I wanted the flash of the city, the noise of a downtown L.A. street or restaurant, the blare of a movie. Nature and I got along okay, but we weren't exactly pals.
We hit the valley and turned east south of Glendale, where my brother Phil and I had grown up. The sun was half red and half reflection on the horizon behind us. The driver turned right when we hit Hill Avenue in Pasadena. After ten or twelve minutes of twists and turns we pulled into an iron-gated driveway just beyond the Huntington estate, and drove along between thick trees which blocked the view of the house until we were almost in front of it. The main house was a big adobe with barred windows and turrets. It was supposed to look like old money and old Mexico. It looked like someone with a lot of money trying for the effect and coming pretty damned close.
The driver parked in front of the front entrance and he and Major Castle got out without a word. I got out and closed the door. I didn't say anything either. The driver was standing at the top of three red stone steps, right hand clasping his left wrist as he looked down at me. Castle stood next to him looking at me over his shoulder, waiting. I moved toward the steps and Castle went to the door and knocked.
I joined him just as one of the thick wooden doors opened on a well-groomed woman in a tan dress. Her dark hair, swept up in the latest style, framed her long neck; her jeweled earrings caught the last light of the day. She backed up with a small smile and we stepped in.
Inside I could see that the woman was older than she had appeared at first glance; older but still worth looking at.
"He's waiting," she said.
Castle nodded and moved past her.
"Good to meet you," I said to the woman as Castle's shoes clicked on the inlaid tiles.
She smiled. Nice mouth. Good teeth. Clear skin.
We moved, Castle leading the way. The walls were draped with colorful rugs and the rooms were tastefully furnished with solid, old-looking wooden furniture. Castle stopped in front of an inlaid oak door and knocked. He looked directly at me and I thought I detected something in his face that might pass for life.
"Come in," came a deep voice and in we went, Castle letting me step past him.
It was an office, a big overheated office; desk, bookcases, photos on the walls, plenty of big-leaved plants. Next to the desk, his hand on the back of a leather chair, stood General Douglas MacArthur. Even in civilian clothes there was no mistaking him. His face was on buttons, posters, front pages, ads. There had been days named in his honor, parks dedicated to him. He was the only hope California had of keeping the Japs from landing tomorrow afternoon. He was, as one citizen had said, the greatest general the United States had known since Sergeant York.
The General examined me and then turned his eyes toward Castle, who stepped out of the room and closed the door. I knew MacArthur was sixty-one or sixty-two, but he looked younger. His shoulders were broad and he looked a little thin. He was slightly stooped. His hand went to his thin dark hair, which he had combed back to unsuccessfully cover a bald spot. He was dressed in a white suit with broad pleated pants and he stood still for about ten or fifteen seconds as if he were posing for a portrait. I'd already begun to sweat in the small, hot room, but MacArthur looked cool and clean, without a stain.
"Mr. Peters," he said. "Sit."
It was a command. I sat in a heavy wooden chair in the center of the room in front of the desk. MacArthur examined me, puckered his lips, nodded in what might have been acceptance and reached for a cigar which was smoldering in an ashtray on the desk. He took a puff, played with his finely manicured fingers and began to slowly pace the room. MacArthur was giving me a minute to get used to being in his presence. As he got absorbed in what he was saying, he began to pace more quickly.
"General Douglas MacArthur is not here," he said, starting to pace.
"I can see that," I said.
He either ignored me or didn't hear. The General went on pacing.
"It is vital that no one know I am here," he said. "Communiqués are being issued in my name from my headquarters in Australia. I am in radio contact by the hour. Within three, possibly four days I will return to the Pacific, but it is imperative that my presence in the United States not be revealed."
"You're not here," I said.
"I'm not concerned, Mr. Peters, about the possibility of your revealing my presence to the press," the General said, snaking his head and pointing his cigar in my direction. "You do not have sufficient stature to make such a revelation credible."
"Thanks," I said.
"My people would simply deny it," he said. "And I assure you that I will not be in this house for more than three hours. The Japanese would give a great deal to know my whereabouts, and I doubt that my passage back to Australia would be without incident if they were to find out. It was only through perseverance and good fortune that my family and I managed to get through the Japanese blockade of Corregidor earlier this year."
"I know," I said. "General, whatever you want ..."
"Please do not interrupt," he said with a tone that made it clear he was not accustomed to interruption. "Your very obscurity is an asset in the situation that and your reliability. My people tell me that you are tenacious and loyal. Both attributes I value. Your intellectual capacity and lack of flexibility may not qualify you for a field commission, but given the present circumstances ... your full attention is required here, Mr. Peters."
My eyes had wandered for an instant to a photograph on the wall showing a younger MacArthur and a cowboy with a big nose and white hat. The cowboy, Tom Mix, had his arm around MacArthur's shoulder and both were grinning at the camera. "I'm sorry, General," I said.
MacArthur had followed my eyes and moved to the photograph, cigar in hand, to straighten it in case my gaze had moved it off center.
"I'm partial to Western movies," he said. "Always have been. I'd see one every day if time permitted. The codes are simple and clear. Good and evil are immediately discernible and honor is the highest attainment."
"In the movies," I said, readjusting my sweat-moistened underwear and turning so I wouldn't be tempted to look at the photographs instead of the General, who obviously had his own show to put on for a two-bit private detective.
"This war will last no more than two, possibly three more years," he said, pacing again. "Those who predict fewer have not taken heed of the determination of the Japanese and the terrain in which the troops of General Douglas MacArthur must do battle."
He paused to look vaguely in my direction. I nodded wisely. A knock at the door and the good-looking woman with the earrings came in with a pitcher of iced tea and two glasses. She put the tray on the corner of the desk and tiptoed out as if she were in a cathedral.
MacArthur poured two tall glassfuls and handed one to me. An ice cube crackled in my glass. I was afraid it would upset the General, who had taken a quick sip and was pacing, pausing, smoking and talking once again.
"When this war is over," he said, "and the rising sun has set, this country will have to turn its attention to the next threat to the people of not only the United States, but the entire free world. Do you know what that threat is, Mr. Peters?"
I considered several possibilities—dehydrated coffee, near beer, French and German opera—but I kept my mouth shut, confident that the General had the answer or he wouldn't have asked the question.
"Communism," he said softly, almost resignedly; then his voice rose in determination. "If it weren't for the Axis, we would be fighting Communists in the plains of Asia and the vineyards of Europe. I am not a fanatic, Mr. Peters. I am a pragmatist. This country will require a leader who is not afraid to face a further conflict, a leader whose hands are not bound"—and with this he held out his hands as if they were cuffed together—"by an executive branch more interested in its political perpetuation than in the need to make difficult and unpopular decisions to safeguard the shores of our country. And who will that leader be?"
I had a feeling I knew the answer to this one.
"Someone," he continued, "who has the trust of the people and the vision to deal with broad global issues. The irony here is that less than a year ago, General Douglas MacArthur was retired and on the way to being forgotten. Now ..."
MacArthur walked to the window behind the desk and motioned for me to come. I got out of the chair, feeling a slight twinge low in my back from the long ride, the moist underwear, and the rigid chair. I gulped down my tea, plunked the glass on the tray and moved next to the General at the window, wiping my brow with a less-than-clean handkerchief I found deep in my pocket.
"What do you see out there, Mr. Peters?" he asked.
I was beginning to understand the game. He would ask me questions and I would keep my mouth shut. What I saw was a lawn, a big green lawn lined with tropical trees. Across the lawn, the tip of the sun barely touched the distant hazy horizon.
"You see," he said, not disappointing me, "the lush, trim solitude of the Pacific Coast. This tranquility stretches along the coastline of California and north into Washington and Oregon. Our President and our European allies would prefer to ignore this vital Edenic garden of America, but the Jap is not ignoring it. A Japanese submarine has shelled the coast of Oregon at Fort Stevens. Japanese airplanes have dropped incendiary bombs on southern Oregon. At my urging, antiaircraft batteries and barrage balloons are going up around defense plants in California."
He paused to watch the effect of all this on me. I tried to look affected.
"General Douglas MacArthur," he went on, "commands the troops of nations with inadequate supplies diverted to an assumed victory in Europe. My ships, my men, battle vigorously. Today we turn back the Japanese at Guadalcanal and hold our own in New Guinea. The tide has begun to turn. The Battle of Midway will prove to be the pivot, and the world will have to recognize what I have accomplished and with how little. General Douglas MacArthur will have protected the coast, won the war. Of that I have no doubt."
I grunted and looked at MacArthur, whose hands were folded behind his back. He looked at the lawn and trees for a few minutes with a small smile, and ended with a sigh.
"Funds have been quietly raised to mount a political campaign in my name at a point in the future when such a campaign will be appropriate," he said, resuming his pacing. "A civilian aide of mine, Andrew Lansing, has stolen these funds."
"How much did he take?" I asked, moving to pour myself another glass of iced tea. The speech was over. We were getting down to business now. I didn't know anything about war and armies, but I'd spent a lifetime with thieves.
"One hundred and eighty thousand dollars in cash," MacArthur said. "But he took something much more valuable: a pouch of documents outlining my political campaign and a list of donors to that campaign. Present donors and those who have pledged support in the future."
"You want me to find Lansing and get the money and the papers back," I said.
"Precisely," MacArthur said. His eyes were probing now. He was trying to decide something. I had the feeling he had more to say but wasn't quite sure it was safe to say it to me. So I went on.
"Why not have some of your own people to do it? The army. The F.B.I. The cops."
"And risk the information getting out that I am actively pursuing the office of President of the United States? Roosevelt would have an excuse for removing me from command in the Pacific, and I tell you, Mr. Peters, without Douglas MacArthur, who has the respect of the people of the Pacific Islands and knowledge of that theater, this war might be prolonged for years."
"What aren't you telling me, General?" I asked.
MacArthur's face went tight and taut. A flash of anger opened his eyes and passed and when the anger passed MacArthur took a deep breath.
"You have no children?"
"No," I said.
"I have a son," he said. "I want my son to be proud of his father, his country. Arthur is the complete center of my thoughts and affection. I feel I am very fortunate in having him and my wife, Jean, in the twilight period of my life. Do you follow me, Peters?"
"Right into battle," I said. "But something's still missing."
Excerpted from Buried Caesars by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1989 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 12, 2001
Toby Peters, Stuart M. Kaminsky's Hollywood private investigator, is back once more in 'Buried Caesars.' It seems that General Douglas MacArthur has his eyes--and stars--set on a political career. Alas, one of his aides scampers away with the campaign funds--and some highly sensitive papers that certainly would impact the American Caesar's political future! But Peters is his man; the general calls him in and off Toby goes. He teams up with Dashiell Hammett, but ultimately solves this whole thing by himself (after Dash gets kidnapped!). A fun read by Kaminsky who does an excellent job of capturing the time and the place, not to mention the characters!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.