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The Case of the Russian Diplomat
A Masao Masuto Mystery
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 E. V. Cunningham
All rights reserved.
THE DROWNED MAN
At precisely twenty minutes after three on a Monday morning in November, Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto's telephone rang shrilly, awakening him from an otherwise untroubled sleep. Still half asleep, he pulled the telephone to him and heard Captain Alex Wainwright's rasping voice.
"I'm here, Captain."
"What in hell are you whispering for? I can't hear you."
"I'm whispering because it's the middle of the night and Kati is asleep."
"I'm not asleep," Kati said.
"I know what time it is," Wainwright snapped. "I'm at the Beverly Glen Hotel, and I want you to get your ass over here. Now."
"Thank you," Masuto said. "You are always considerate of your employees."
"You don't work for me, you work for the city."
Masuto put down the phone, turned on the light, and looked at his wife; he reflected that even awakened rudely from her sleep, Kati managed to give the impression that she had just stepped out of a Japanese print, her black hair held neatly with a ribbon, her face like a lovely, worried ivory cameo.
"Wainwright," Masuto explained.
"I know. I will make hot tea."
"No, no, please. Go back to sleep. He's out of his mind, so there's no time for tea."
But Kati was already out of bed and in her kimono, and before Masuto left the house he had to have the cup of tea and a sweet cake—to raise his blood sugar, as Kati put it. Kati read every article on nutrition that the Los Angeles Times printed, and it was her constant grief that away from her, Masuto subsisted on tacos, frankfurters, pizza, and other strange and barbaric concoctions.
In his car, driving north on Motor Road from Culver City, where he lived, to Beverly Hills, Masuto reflected on the fact that he derived so much happiness from a marriage to a very simple and very old-fashioned Japanese woman. Being a Zen Buddhist as well as a member of the Beverly Hills police force, he never confused simplicity with a lack of wisdom; just as being a member of the Beverly Hills police, he never confused wealth with either intelligence or morality. And now as so often before, he congratulated himself on his choice of a mate. He had heard the children whispering as he left the house, awakened by the phone call, and right now Kati would be sitting in their room, singing softly. He smiled at the thought.
During the past ten years, the Beverly Glen Hotel had achieved an international reputation as a symbol of wealth, opulence, and the entertainment industry. Situated somewhat to the east of Beverly Glen and within the city limits of Beverly Hills, it sat on a knoll overlooking the city, a huge, haphazard, sprawling pile of pink stucco and palms and Moroccan ivy. It was the only place to stay if you were a particular kind of person, and the place not to stay if you were another kind of person; and while Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto had never tasted its hospitality as a guest, he was nevertheless a not infrequent visitor in his professional capacity. In that capacity, he always kept in mind the difference between those who live in Beverly Hills—a small and unique city in Los Angeles County—and those who were guests at the Beverly Glen Hotel. The residents of Beverly Hills, particularly those who lived north of the railroad tracks—in this case, the Southern Pacific, which bisected the city from east to west—had a common bond: money. Given the restricted area of their residence, they were probably as rich as or richer than any group on similar acreage anywhere in the United States, or in the world for that matter.
The guests at the Beverly Glen Hotel—most of them from New York City and its environs—might be equally rich or as poor as church mice. They might pay the going rate of one hundred dollars a room per night without pain, or they might skip, leaving their luggage behind them; in either case, they were an interesting selection, consisting of film stars, their agents, businessmen, diplomats, Mafia chiefs, producers, writers, congressmen, con men, cheap crooks, tourists—and anyone else who could put down a hundred dollars a day, mostly on an expense account, to stay in the Shangri-La of the film and television industry.
It was 4 A.M. when Masuto turned off Sunset Boulevard and drove up to the entrance of the Beverly Glen Hotel. A weary parking attendant took his car, and then Fred Comstock, a lumbering six-foot-two retired Los Angeles cop and now a hotel detective—or security chief, as they preferred to call him—came out to shake hands and say, "Glad you're here, Masao. This one is a beauty."
In the lobby of the hotel, at the registration desk, Detective Sy Beckman was arguing in loud tones with a man in a bathrobe, whom Masuto recognized as Al Gellman, the manager. He was a skinny, nervous man, and the fact that this was the first time Masuto had seen him without his toupee attested to his condition.
"Goddamn it," Beckman was saying, "I know what your problems are. We got problems too. We can't just put a lid—" He saw Masuto and broke off. "Don't go away," he said to Gellman. And to Masuto, "The captain's down at the pool. Will you take him there, Fred?"
It made a man irritable to be awakened in the middle of the night, and Masuto said softly to Beckman, "Just take it easy with Gellman."
"All he can think about is his goddamn hotel."
"That's all he has to think about."
"I'll go with you," Gellman said, joining Masuto and Comstock. Beckman remained in the lobby while the three of them went down the stairs, through the arcade of shops to the pool area. "You know," Gellman said to Masuto, "you're the only man on the force with an ounce of brains. We're a part of the city, its mystique, its reputation. A drowning in our pool stinks. I can't tell you how much it stinks. There's no reason why it has to be advertised."
"Well, Beckman's no one to talk to about that. Let's see what we got."
It was a clear, cold, moonlit California night, and the pool, lit by its underwater floods, lay in an unreal conglomeration of silver palms, silver awnings, and silver lounge chairs. Seeing was a part of Masuto's religion as well as his way of life. The ugly becomes beautiful, the beautiful ugly and mundane. Someone had once named the pool area of the Beverly Glen Hotel "the naked hooker"; and one day, a few months ago, Masuto had listened to Gellman bewailing the fact that there was no way in the world to rid the hotel of the high-priced call girls who made it their place of business. "The truth is," Gellman had complained, "that there's no way in the world to tell the difference between a guest, a guest's girl, and a hooker. Things have changed." But now the pool area was empty, cold, almost enchanting in the moonlight.
Gellman led the way into the men's locker room. The place was ablaze with light. Stretched out on a bench was the naked body of a man. Dr. Sam Baxter, skinny, normally bad humored, was as annoyed as everyone else at a thing like this taking place in the middle of the night. That made his disposition even worse. He was chief pathologist at All Saints Hospital, doubling as medical examiner in a place where, as he put it, one expects a minimum of violence. He was closing his bag as they entered, and he greeted Masuto with a scowl.
"I'm delighted to see you in good spirits," Masuto said.
Captain Wainwright turned from staring at the body to stare at Masuto. "Hello, Masao," he said, his voice surprisingly mild.
Masuto walked forward and looked at the body. His age, Masuto surmised, was somewhere between fifty and fifty-five. A guess would make him five feet eight inches in height, and he was fat, perhaps two hundred and ten pounds. Thin hair, pasty white skin. Masuto leaned over and lifted one of the corpse's eyelids. The eyes were blue. He touched the eyeball lightly with his thumb and forefinger, and then he peered closely at the small snub nose.
"Maybe I shouldn't have dragged you out of bed," Wainwright said. "No marks on the body. No sign of violence. Sam thinks he drowned."
"I know he drowned," Baxter said sourly.
"You won't know until you do an autopsy," Wainwright said.
"He drowned," Gellman said. "My God, Captain, can't you let it go at that? That's bad enough. We never had a drowning in the pool before."
"Who is he?" Masuto asked.
Wainwright looked at Gellman, who spread his hands and shook his head. "That's it."
"What do you mean, that's it?"
"We don't know who he is," Gellman replied.
"Isn't he a guest?"
"No. At least, we don't think so."
"The daytime room clerk ain't here yet," Comstock explained. "He lives in Pasadena, and he's on his way. But Sal Monti, who runs the parking and who's got a damn good memory, says he's never seen him before. Now that don't mean that he couldn't have got out of a car and come into the hotel when Sal's back was turned. You know how heavy the traffic at the front gets around five o'clock. But if he came in as a guest with luggage, Sal would have remembered him."
"Do you suppose you can finish these speculations without me?" Dr. Baxter asked. "I'd like to get a little sleep."
"Did you call for the wagon?" Wainwright asked him.
"I'll do it on the way out."
"And what time will you have the autopsy report?"
"When I'm finished!" Baxter snapped, then picked up his bag and strode out.
"Where are his clothes?" Masuto asked.
Again Wainwright looked at Gellman, who shook his head. "We don't know. No sign of them."
Masuto pointed to the dead man's nose. "He wore glasses. There are the marks. Eyeballs enlarged. He was nearsighted, I'd guess. And there's the mark of a watchband on his left wrist. Any sign of the glasses and the wristwatch?"
Watching Masuto thoughtfully, Wainwright asked, "Anything else, Masao?"
"He wasn't Jewish."
"How the hell—?" Comstock began.
"He's not circumcised, Fred," Gellman explained.
"Go on, Masao."
"Just a few observations that may not mean a thing. He's soft, no sign of physical labor." He picked up one of the dead man's hands. "The nails are cut but not manicured. That's unusual for a guest of his age here in this hotel." He pushed up the man's lip to reveal, among his other teeth, a bridge with a molar of dull gray metal. "I'd guess that isn't American dental work. He may be a foreigner."
"For God's sake," Gellman said, "I don't want you to try to make something of this, Captain. A man drowned. Let's get the body out of here before the guests wake up, and leave it at that."
"Al, you know better," Wainwright said. "Who is he? Where did he come from? How did he drown—if he did? My word, for a man with his fat to drown in a swimming pool—that's not easy."
"Who discovered the body?" Masuto asked.
Detective Beckman came in at that moment with the day desk clerk, whom Gellman introduced as Ira Jessam. Jessam was forty or so, thin, dark, intense, and very much disturbed by the sight of the dead body.
"Take a good look at him, Mr. Jessam," Wainwright told him, "and tell us whether you ever saw him before."
It was obviously painful for Mr. Jessam to stare at the corpse, more, Masuto suspected, because the man was naked than because he was dead.
Jessam shook his head.
"You never saw him before?"
"He didn't register. That's all I can say. I can't possibly keep track of who goes in and out of the hotel, and anyway there's more than one entrance. But he didn't register while I was on duty."
"All right, Jessam," Gellman said. "Go home and get some sleep. I'll see you tomorrow, or today."
"Not much use in going home now. I think I'll just lie down in the office—if I may."
"Be my guest."
"I'd still like to know who discovered the body," Masuto said.
"Tell him, Beckman," said Wainwright.
"It's the goddamndest thing. According to the night operator, the call came from room three-twenty-two. The room is registered to a guy by the name of Jack Stillman, out of Vegas. He's a booking agent. The call came at exactly two forty-nine, and the operator switched it to the front desk. Now that room overlooks the pool, and the caller tells Frome—he's the night clerk—that there's a body floating in the pool. Frome calls Freddie here"—indicating the security chief—"whose room is on the ground floor off the pool area, and Freddie goes in in his pajamas and drags the fat man out—"
"Which is by no means easy," Comstock observed.
"For God's sake, Freddie," Gellman said, "find a sheet or some towels or something and cover him up." And to Wainwright, "Where the devil's that ambulance? I want him out of here before any of the guests wake up."
"But now," Beckman said, "we come to the cute part. Both the night operator and the night clerk swear that the call was made by a woman."
"Oh?" Masuto was intrigued.
"Not hysterical. Very cool, very calm. Speaking softly. She talks to the operator first. Then to the front desk."
"What did she say?"
Beckman got out his notebook. "Says to the operator, There's a body floating in the pool. Where, asks the operator? In the swimming pool. The operator says, My God, I'll give you the front desk."
"The operator's a good girl," Gellman said. "Very steady."
"This woman. What did she say to the night clerk?"
"Same thing. Exactly."
"Did he ask who she was?"
"She hung up."
"And room three-twenty-two?"
"I just got down from there when you arrived, Masao. This Stillman guy claims he was asleep. Alone. That's what makes it cute."
"Now look," said Gellman, "this isn't as crazy as it sounds. I know Stillman. He always stays here when he's in L.A. Last month he married Binnie Vance, the dancer. It's his third marriage. All she has to do is find out that he's shacked up with a dame and the shit hits the fan."
"Did you look through his room, bathroom, closets?" Masuto asked.
"What am I, an amateur?"
"Could she slip out of the hotel without being seen?" Masuto asked Gellman.
"I suppose so. Service entrance in the basement. It's bolted on the inside."
He looked at Beckman. "Did you check the bolt?"
"I just got down from the room when you arrived."
"Do it now."
Beckman left. "If she came in her own car," Masuto said, "she wouldn't know where the jockey parked it. If she came with Stillman, she's on foot."
"Where's the phone?" Wainwright demanded.
Gellman pointed to the pool office. A moment later, they heard Wainwright telling the central office to put out a call for any woman on foot. "Give it to L.A.P.D. too," he told them. "She may be a fast walker." He came back as Beckman reappeared.
"The bolt was open," Beckman said.
"I'm going home and get some sleep," said Wainwright. "You take it from here, Masao. And for Christ's sake, if he drowned, he drowned."
"Of course, Captain." Masuto was opening the lockers. "Take that row, Sy," he said to Beckman.
"What the hell are you doing, Masao?"
"He hid his clothes, his glasses and his wristwatch, and then he decided to drown."
"You know what he's after," Gellman sputtered. "He's determined to make something of this. God almighty, a man drowns, he drowns."
"Maybe. Every locker, Sy," Masao said to Beckman.
Gellman turned desperately to Wainwright. "Masao's the boss. It's his case now. I'm going to sleep. Anyway, we won't know how he died until Doc Baxter does the autopsy. Why don't you get some sleep yourself, Al? Good night, gentlemen."
Gellman followed Wainwright out of the dressing room. Masuto and Beckman went through the lockers. The lockers were there for the convenience of the hotel guests, and none of them were locked. The search turned up a number of bathing suits, male, some sunglasses and a wristwatch, all of which Fred Comstock took into his custody. They tried the ladies' dressing room next, and the results were equally uninspiring.
"It's five A.M.," Comstock announced. "I lost a night's sleep, and I don't get overtime, and I'm on duty at eight. How about I sack down for a few hours? You guys don't need me."
"I'll want to talk with Stillman," Masuto said.
"Go ahead. But be gentle. At a hundred dollars a day, they're entitled."
"I'm always gentle."
"The way I figure it," Beckman said, once they were in the elevator, "she made the call while he was sleeping and then skipped."
"You're sure he was asleep?"
"Either that or he was a good actor."
They rang the bell at room 322, and then waited. A second time. Then a third time. Then Jack Stillman opened the door, in his pajamas.
Excerpted from The Case of the Russian Diplomat by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1978 E. V. Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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