Howard Fast

The Case of the Russian Diplomat



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.”

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