I aimed my bucket with all horses blazing towards UBC radio at the corner of Sunset and Vine. Didn’t let off the gas until I slammed to a stop. The skid was heard two blocks away. No worries about the cops, though. Because Lt. Hap Underwood, my portly compadre at the L.A.P.D, burned to a stop right behind me.
“Breck call you, too?” I queried.
“Of course,” Underwood chuckled. He squeezed his extra-wide frame out of his police-issue coupe. “This is a police matter, too, you know.”
We breezed in through the double glass doors. Tossed a quick wave to the cute little blonde jane behind the desk. Under other circumstances, I wouldn’t have minded waiting. But this wasn’t other circumstances. No need for protocol.
The horn-rimmed station manager, Herman Breck, was already waiting for us. Puzzled expression and all.
“So, what’s this unbelievable scoop?” I asked him.
He sucked in a quick breath. Then exhaled: “I’ve got the ‘monkey wrench’ back in my office. Wants to go on the radio and tell his side of the story.”
Underwood and I both did a double-take on that one.
“When did he get here?” I asked.
Underwood, being the silent type, was more than willing to let me take the lead. He knew I would anyway.
“’Bout an hour ago. Seems he hitched his way down from Fort Lewis, up in Washington.”
FIRST thing I learned in the newspaper game was you never know which way a story’s gonna go. Sometimes, you think you’ve got it all figured out. Then it takes a wild turn from out of nowhere. And sometimes that wild turn goes bust. And you’re right back where you started.
My fellow newshounds and I had all been chasing the latest Carmine Calvero story for weeks on end. As you know, Calvero was world famous for his “Lucky Hobo” character back in the silent days. Of course, he’d long put away the grease-paint and baggy pants. But that didn’t stop him from enjoying his remaining star power. One of his latest conquests was a fiery, red-haired dish named Joanne Benton. They had some laughs. Then he sent her packing, just like all the others. Only this one showed up on his doorstep some months later. Mad as hell, and with a bundle of joy. Not to mention a lawyer.
The “monkey wrench” came in the form of a telegram from a Chaplain up in Washington State. Sent to a judge in Beverly Hills: “Soldier here admits intimacy with Joanne Benton. Believes he is the father.”
Needless to say, this bit of news hit like a thunder storm at a Sunday picnic. Lawyers on both sides went scrambling. One side hoped it was true. The other hoped it wasn’t. I’m sure Calvero got at least one night’s good sleep from it. With company, no doubt.
BRECK spilled the whole scenario on the way down the hall: “Kid’s name is Fred Steinman. Fresh-faced private in Uncle Sam’s Army. Says he was stationed for a while down here last year. Picked her up in his jeep one night and took her up into the Hollywood hills. The view sent her swooning so hard, she jumped right into his loving arms.”
Underwood popped the question we were both asking: “So, you think this kid’s legit?”
“Talks a good game to me,” Breck shrugged. “But what do I know?”
“Sounds fishy to me,” I offered. “If he’s for real, why go on the radio? Why not just go straight to see the gal?”
Hap nodded in agreement. “So, what’re you thinking?”
“I say we put him to the test.”
“How so?” Breck asked.
“He wants to talk to the press. But he’ll clam when he sees Hap’s badge. So, we tell him Hap’s the Benton quail’s brother. Then we see what shakes out.”
Hap shook his head in disagreement. “I’m no good with this play-acting stuff.”
“Alright then,” I said. “You be me and I’ll be the brother. Just let me ask all the questions.”
We all nodded in agreement. Breck took us back to his office where the kid was stewing.
My glims lit up like search lights on Hollywood Blvd. when he stood up to greet us. His shadow could cover Mt. Rushmore. He had me by nearly a foot. And I’m a full two yards in my bare feet.
“When do I go on the radio?” Fred asked. He clutched his green army cap in frustration. “When can I see Joanne?”
“In time,” Breck told him calmly. “But first I want you to meet some people. This is Tom… Benton, Joanne’s brother.”
I stuck out my mitt. His paw swallowed mine like a vise. I suddenly got worried about the ruse we were playing. Or what he’d do when he found out the truth.
“And,” Breck continued and pointed out Hap. This is uh… Tom Miller, with the L.A. Chronicle.”
Breck wasn’t too good himself with play-acting either. Of course, a few seconds deciding on names wouldn’t have hurt.
Fred gave us both a curious grin. “Both named Tom, huh?”
Not wanting to blow the ruse right out of the gate, I jumped in. Went right to brass tacks.
“Why do you want to marry my sister?” I asked.
“Because I love her,” the hulking lug swooned. “I didn’t know she was — you know, in the family way ‘till I read about it in the papers. Honest, I didn’t! I just felt terrible. I’m not the kind of fellah who’d run out on a gal like that! I want to do right by her. Take care of her. I love her more than any woman in the world.”
“So, what’s your plan?” I asked him.
“I’m gonna ask her to marry me. With your permission, of course.” He fumbled in his pocket. Pulled out a small ring with a tiny speck for a stone. “I’ll be out of the service, soon. I’ve already arranged with my sister in Jersey for us to stay with her ‘till we can get a place of our own.”
If nothing else, the kid was sincere. If it was an act, it was an awful good one. And he was in just the right town for it.
Hap gave me a heartfelt look. “How about it, Tom?”
“Okay,” I told him. “You can meet her for dinner on one condition: Don’t go on the radio.”
The buck private’s face lit up. He jumped to his pins. Shook my duke like a dirty rug. “Sure thing, Mr. Benton! You have my word!”
Hap and Breck saved their questions until we’d left the office. Well out of earshot.
“How do you plan get this kid together with Joanne Benton?” they both asked. “She’s in the funny farm!”
“Simple. We hire a ringer.”
I HOPPED back in my jalopy. Took the five minute drive over to Central Casting in the Mayer Bldg. at Hollywood and Western. I’d been there enough that I no longer had to show my credentials. Betty Marsden was the smart-looking blonde jane who usually worked the counter. Her smile lit up the room when I walked in. I always wondered what she was doing behind it.
“Hey, Winchell,” she asked. “What’re you up to this time?” She knew every time I ankled my way into her portal, it would get interesting.
“Need a gal that can pass for Joanne Benton. There’s two sawbucks in it for her if she plays along.”
Betty dipped her cheaters and raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t worry, Doll. It’s strictly on the level. Just a night out for dinner, that’s all.”
She knew better than to ask any more questions. “You’re in luck. I’ve got just the girl.”
She went through the filing cabinet. Whisked through a drawer of glossies. Seconds later, she plopped one in front of my puss. “Her name’s Louise Gribble. Ever since the Benton story broke, people are always saying how much Louise looks like her.”
She was right. The gal bore a striking resemblance. Since I was gambling that Fred had only seen the real Joanne in newsprint, she’d do perfectly. Either way, it would still prove my point.
“Tell her to meet me at the Formosa, Five Forty-Five, sharp.”
YOUNG Miss Gribble must have been hungry for work. Or just plain hungry, because she was early. I was glad, because it gave us a few minutes to prepare. I tabbed her as soon as her long stems step off the Red Car. The gaze upwards only improved. Her fiery red hair framed a face that looked even better in color. There was just one problem. Two, actually.
Everyone knows Calvero was drawn to Joanne Benton’s ample proportions. But this wren was built like an ironing board.
I rushed over and scooped her up by the arm. “Louise Gribble?” Before she could answer I whisked her in through the front canopy. “I’m Tom Miller with the L.A. Chronicle. Look, Sweetheart, you’re perfect, but we’ve got to make an adjustment.”
“Sure you’re a reporter? Or a producer?” She shot back with a smile that made my knees give.
She was as sharp as she looked. I liked that. Her dark skirt and auburn tresses were a perfect match for the Formosa’s red-and-black décor. The walls are topped with signed photos of every famous mug in Tinsel Town. Her face could have fit with any one of them.
I breezed her over to the hostess stand. Luckily, the lovely brunette quail was eager to assist. “Listen, Sweetheart, I need a box of tissues, pronto.” I dropped a few bills to show I was in a hurry.
Another glance at Louise and I decided to up the order. “Make it two.”
The hostess cutie got my message. She replaced my bills with two boxes in seconds flat. I pushed them into Louise’s dainty mitts.
“No offense, Sweetheart. But we need to fill you out a little. Meet me in the dining car when you’re ready.”
She got the gist and smiled back. “Of course. I’ll just be in the powder room.”
I tabbed Jim Perry, staff photog, ready and waiting. If Fred turned out to be the real deal, he’d be on the front page of the morning edition. If not, we didn’t know what he’d do when he found out we were wise to him. Hap was armed, just in case. That’s why we’d come there early. Just so there wouldn’t be any innocent bystanders.
“Right this way, Sir,” the hostess cutie chirped as she led me past the bar towards the “dining car” in the back — a retired trolley from the Red Car line. The rest of the joint was built around it.
Miss Gribble returned a few minutes later. She looked like a different girl and completely natural. They certainly got my attention. And I knew better. Just in time, too. Because seconds later, Hap and Breck strolled in with our young quarry.
“Joanne!” he called out as soon as he lamped her. He reached out for a hug, but she ducked behind my back. His size took her by surprise, too.
“Hello, Joanne darling,” he pined, “it’s so good to see you again.”
“Hello, Fred,” she replied nervously. “It’s lovely to see you again, too.” Her radiant smile calmed him down. He took her hand and went to kiss it. Then chickened out — out of shyness.
That led to a few long seconds of awkward silence. So, I jumped in to break the ice. “What do you say we get a picture of you two lovebirds together?” But what I really wanted was for Fred to get a really good look at “Joanne.”
The “happy family” posed while photog Perry snapped a few plates. Fred was still none the wiser. Which was all I needed to see. I gave Hap the nod and tapped Fred on the shoulder.
“Fred, let’s go outside a minute. I need to ask you something. Man to man.”
Fred gave me a big, goofy grin: “Sure.”
“Breck, you mind staying with Joanne?” I asked. I could tell from the goofy grin on his own face that he didn’t.
We ankled it back out the front portico. I peered back to make sure Hap was right behind me.
Soon as we got outside, I put it to him. “What do you want to lie for, Fred?” I asked. “You’ve never seen this doll before in your life.”
He just shrugged with a red-faced grin: “Wh-why would I lie?”
“That’s what we want to know,” I barked.
Hap brushed back his coat. Revealed his badge. “This is serious business, kid,” he said. “Could land you in a lot of hot water.”
Fred dug in his heels like a bull about to charge.
“What are you trying to pull on me here?” he asked.
He barreled straight past us, back inside. That got us even more scared. Hap reached for his roscoe. We rushed back in, hell bent for leather.
When we got to the dining car, poor Breck was the only thing between Fred and Louise. I don’t know who was more frightened — him or the girl.
Photog Perry was dutifully grabbing shots. Ready to capture the moment of Breck getting pummeled.
“You know it’s true, don’t you honey? Tell ‘em! Tell ‘em how we loved each other that night in the hills!”
He reached for her with his big paws. But she jerked loose. Ducked behind Hap and his iron equalizer.
“Get away from me, you big goof! I’m not Joanne Benton and I never was in the hills with you!”
Fred just stood there. Dumb expression on his map. He’d been had, but good.
“What are you trying to do? Mix me up?” he shouted back. He was starting to get flustered.
“Ix-nay, Fred,” I told him. “Get yourself together. You’ve been putting on a good act. But the show’s over.”
Fred boiled up like a volcano. Hap had his bean-shooter cranked and ready.
Fred popped his lid. Bolted straight out the front door. We followed after. Just in time to see him haul it on foot down Santa Monica Blvd. We’d hoped that was the last we’d ever see of one Private Fred Steinman.
I gave our “Joanne,” the now less vivacious (but still quite lovely) Louise Gribble, an extra ten-spot when I escorted her back to the Red Car.
“Thanks, Doll, and sorry about all the drama.”
“I think next time I’ll just stick to work in front of the camera,” she told me. I couldn’t blame her.
THREE days passed, and there was no sign of Private Fred. I figured he must have found his way back to Washington State. Given up on his dreams of rescuing red-headed damsels. I figured wrong.
I came into the office early one morning. Plopped down at my desk to fuss over another angle on the Calvero story. That’s when I heard a familiar voice at the doorway: “I need to talk to a reporter. I got a real scoop for you. On the Joanne Benton story.”
I peered up from my typewriter to see young Fred. He was towering over the desk of stone-gazed Janet Gronchi, our no-nonsense Gal Friday. I always said she’d be a real cutie if she’d let down her hair and perked up her disposition.
Fred had regrouped. Now he was angling for the papers. “I need to talk to someone right away! I tell you, it’s important!” He barked. Big mistake.
That was enough to get the attention of our seen-it-all City Editor Hal Jenkins, sitting in his office. He glanced up from his desk; peered out the large windows. Took in the sight of the big palooka looming over our tiny damsel. Now, Jenkins could have jumped in. But he knew it wasn’t necessary.
Gronchi rose up out of her chair. Grabbed her quarter-inch thick wooden ruler. Stared Fred down through her horn-rimmed cheaters. No easy feat, as he was more than twice her height. But there’s not a man nor beast alive that can out-intimidate Gronchi.
She stuck her ruler right in his face. “You’ll talk to someone when I tell you to. And not a minute sooner! You got that?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Fred backed off. Tail between his legs.
“Now sit down!”
“It’s okay, Gronchi,” I piped up. “I’ll jaw with him.”
Soon as Fred’s optics locked on mine, I could see the light bulb blink on over his head. That’s when he finally realized that I wasn’t “Joanne’s” brother. That he’d been had. Completely. The volcano was about to blow.
Of course, it might have been smarter to let Fred tangle with Gronchi. But I was wise enough to ask for back-up.
“Better call Hap, Gronchi! Tell him the Private’s back!” I shouted.
I don’t know who was faster: Gronchi spinning the phone dial; or Fred flying across desks towards me. Papers and typewriters flew in all directions.
I shoved my desk forward. Caught him in the shins. Just enough to slow him down. But not by much.
Jenkins shouted from his office: “What the hell?”
Fred’s giant fists came at me like two anvils shot out of a cannon. My plan was simple: keep away from those dukes! I usually rely on my own bulk in fights. But not this time. I was the one who had to be quicker.
Fred swung his left, then his right! Came up empty both times. The desk had done its job. He was big and sloppy. Just as I suspected.
I ducked on the third, but wasn’t so lucky. Hit my chin like a freight train! Sent me reeling into the wall! Never had a wallop like that before. Wasn’t sure what was spinning faster: me or the room!
Caught a quick glimpse of Gronchi shouting into the squawker. But Fred was back for seconds. Despite my dizziness, I managed to avoid the return of the Steinman Express. Fred hit the wall instead. I swear it shook the building!
Needed to clear my head. And something to even the odds. Jenkins was already on it. Kept a Louiseville Slugger in his office for just such an occasion.
Fred came at me again. I lunged to avoid his next swing. Jenkins threw me the bat. Shouted for Gronchi to find photog Perry.
I didn’t waste any time. Had to make it good! Went for the kneecap with everything I had. Managed to get a wince. But it wasn’t enough!
Next I aimed high. Big mistake! Fred was quicker than I thought. Caught the bat in his right hand! Caught my chin again with his left! Thought it would shatter! Sent me sprawling back towards Gronchi’s desk.
Left me seeing double. Tried to stagger to my feet.
Fred had the upper hand. And the bat! Hap couldn’t get there soon enough.
I looked around. Stab him with a pencil? Hit him with a stapler? The bat was my best weapon. Now he had it! And he was about to use it. On me!
Fred raised up the bat. Was just about to bring it crushing down on my skull!
That’s when the cavalry showed up.
“Hey!” Gronchi shouted. “Didn’t I tell you to sit down?”
My optics widened. So, did Fred’s.
Mr. Jenkins wasn’t the least surprised.
Gronchi marched up to Fred. Stuck her ruler right up in his kisser.
“You put that bat down right now, Mister!”
Fred’s button went blank. Color ran right out.
“Y-yes, Ma’am,” he stuttered. Dropped the bat just like he was ordered.
“Now you help clean this mess up, and I mean NOW!”
That was all the opening I needed. I balled up my dukes. Let him have it with every ounce of juice I had left! Right in the smeller! The little crack told me I’d hit pay dirt.
Yeah, it was a sucker punch. But I owed him one for tossing me around the room like a rag doll.
“Who is this clown?” Gronchi asked. Fred’s sniffer oozed like a faucet with a really bad leak.
“Just a guy who tried to sell a bad story one too many times,” I shot back.
HAP showed up not too long after with a couple of harness bulls. Plus an Army Lieutenant and a pair of MPs. Just in time to see Gronchi riding herd over Private Fred with tissues stuffed up each nostril.
She tapped her ruler impatiently as every desk, every typewriter, and every paper was put back in its place.
Jenkins was already back in his office. He knew better than to get in the way.
“You boys can sit right over there and wait,” Gronchi piped. She pointed to a row of chairs with her ruler. “You can have him when I’m done. And not a minute sooner.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the Lieutenant replied.
Perry snapped another photograph.