By James Ellroy
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Table of Contents
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Fire and Ice
The road to the partnership began without my knowing it, and it was a revival of the Blanchard-Bleichert fight brouhaha that brought me the word.
I was coming off a long tour of duty spent in a speed trap on Bunker Hill, preying on traffic violators. My ticket book was full and my brain was numb from eight hours of following my eyes across the intersection of 2nd and Beaudry. Walking through the Central muster room and a crowd of blues waiting to hear the P.M. crime sheet, I almost missed Johnny Vogel's, "They ain't fought in years, and Horrall outlawed smokers, so I don't think that's it. My dad's thick with the Jewboy, and he says he'd try for Joe Louis if he was white."
Then Tom Joslin elbowed me. "They're talking about you, Bleichert."
I looked over at Vogel, standing a few yards away, talking to another cop. "Hit me, Tommy."
Joslin smiled. "You know Lee Blanchard?"
"The Pope know Jesus?"
"Ha! He's working Central Warrants."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"How's this? Blanchard's partner's topping out his twenty. Nobody thought he'd pull the pin, but he's gonna. The Warrants boss is this felony court DA, Ellis Loew. He got Blanchard his appointment, now he's looking for a bright boy to take over the partner's spot. Word is he creams for fighters and wants you. Vogel's old man's in the Detective Bureau. He's simpatico with Loew and pushing for his kid to get the job. Frankly, I don't think either of you got the qualifications. Me, on the other hand…"
I tingled, but still managed to come up with a crack to show Joslin I didn't care. "Your teeth are too small. No good for biting in the clinches. Lots of clinches working Warrants."
• • •
But I did care.
That night I sat on the steps outside my apartment and looked at the garage that held my heavy bag and speed bag, my scrapbook of press clippings, fight programs and publicity stills. I thought about being good but not really good, about keeping my weight down when I could have put on an extra ten pounds and fought heavyweight, about fighting tortilla-stuffed Mexican middleweights at the Eagle Rock Legion Hall where my old man went to his Bund meetings. Light heavyweight was a no-man's-land division, and early on I pegged it as being tailor-made for me. I could dance on my toes all night at 175 pounds, I could hook accurately to the body from way outside and only a bulldozer could work in off my left jab.
But there were no light heavyweight bulldozers, because any hungry fighter pushing 175 slopped up spuds until he made heavyweight, even if he sacrificed half his speed and most of his punch. Light heavyweight was safe. Light heavyweight was guaranteed fifty-dollar purses without getting hurt. Light heavyweight was plugs in the Times from Braven Dyer, adulation from the old man and his Jew-baiting cronies and being a big cheese as long as I didn't leave Glassell Park and Lincoln Heights. It was going as far as I could as a natural—without having to test my guts.
Then Ronnie Cordero came along.
He was a Mex middleweight out of El Monte, fast, with knockout power in both hands and a crablike defense, guard high, elbows pressed to his sides to deflect body blows. Only nineteen, he had huge bones for his weight, with the growth potential to jump him up two divisions to heavyweight and the big money. He racked up a string of fourteen straight early-round KOs at the Olympic, blitzing all the top LA middles. Still growing and anxious to jack up the quality of his opponents, Cordero issued me a challenge through the Herald sports page.
I knew that he would eat me alive. I knew that losing to a taco bender would ruin my local celebrity. I knew that running from the fight would hurt me, but fighting it would kill me. I started looking for a place to run to. The army, navy and marines looked good, then Pearl Harbor got bombed and made them look great. Then the old man had a stroke, lost his job and pension and started sucking baby food through a straw. I got a hardship deferment and joined the Los Angeles Police Department.
I saw where my thoughts were going. FBI goons were asking me if I considered myself a German or an American, and would I be willing to prove my patriotism by helping them out. I fought what was next by concentrating on my landlady's cat stalking a bluejay across the garage roof. When he pounced, I admitted to myself how bad I wanted Johnny Vogel's rumor to be true.
Warrants was local celebrity as a cop. Warrants was plainclothes without a coat and tie, romance and a mileage per diem on your civilian car. Warrants was going after the real bad guys and not rousting winos and wienie waggers in front of the Midnight Mission. Warrants was working in the DA's office with one foot in the Detective Bureau, and late dinners with Mayor Bowron when he was waxing effusive and wanted to hear war stories.
Thinking about it started to hurt. I went down to the garage and hit the speed bag until my arms cramped.
• • •
Over the next few weeks I worked a radio car beat near the northern border of the division. I was breaking in a fat-mouthed rookie named Sidwell, a kid just off a three-year MP stint in the Canal Zone. He hung on my every word with the slavish tenacity of a lapdog, and was so enamored of civilian police work that he took to sticking around the station after our end of tour, bullshitting with the jailers, snapping towels at the wanted posters in the locker room, generally creating a nuisance until someone told him to go home.
He had no sense of decorum, and would talk to anybody about anything. I was one of his favorite subjects, and he passed station house scuttlebutt straight back to me.
I discounted most of the rumors: Chief Horrall was going to start up an interdivisional boxing team, and was shooting me Warrants to assure that I signed on along with Blanchard; Ellis Loew, the felony court comer, was supposed to have won a bundle betting on me before the war and was now handing me a belated reward; Horrall had rescinded his order banning smokers, and some high brass string puller wanted me happy so he could line his pockets betting on me. Those tales sounded too farfetched, although I knew boxing was somehow behind my front-runner status. What I credited was that the Warrants opening was narrowing down to either Johnny Vogel or me.
Vogel had a father working Central dicks; I was a padded 36-0-0 in the no-man's-land division five years before. Knowing the only way to compete with nepotism was to make the weight, I punched bags, skipped meals and skipped rope until I was a nice, safe light heavyweight again. Then I waited.
I was a week at the 175-pound limit, tired of training and dreaming every night of steaks, chili burgers and coconut cream pies. My hopes for the Warrants job had waned to the point where I would have sold them down the river for pork chops at the Pacific Dining Car, and the neighbor who looked after the old man for a double sawbuck a month had called me to say that he was acting up again, taking BB potshots at the neighborhood dogs and blowing his Social Security check on girlie magazines and model airplanes. It was reaching the point where I would have to do something about him, and every toothless geezer I saw on the beat hit my eyes as a gargoyle version of Crazy Dolph Bleichert. I was watching one stagger across 3rd and Hill when I got the radio call that changed my life forever.
"11-A-23, call the station. Repeat: 11-A-23, call the station."
Sidwell nudged me. "We got a call, Bucky."
"The dispatcher said to call the station."
I hung a left and parked, then pointed to the call box on the corner. "Use the gamewell. The little key next to your handcuffs."
Sidwell obeyed, trotting back to the cruiser moments later, looking grave. "You're supposed to report to the Chief of Detectives immediately," he said.
My first thoughts were of the old man. I leadfooted the six blocks to City Hall and turned the black-and-white over to Sidwell, then took the elevator up to Chief Thad Green's fourth-floor offices. A secretary admitted me to the Chief's inner sanctum, and sitting in matched leather chairs were Lee Blanchard, more high brass than I had ever seen in one place and a spider-thin man in a three-piece tweed suit.
The secretary said, "Officer Bleichert," and left me standing there, aware that my uniform hung on my depleted body like a tent. Then Blanchard, wearing cord slacks and a maroon letterman's jacket, got to his feet and played MC.
"Gentlemen, Bucky Bleichert. Bucky, left to right in uniform, we have Inspector Malloy, Inspector Stensland and Chief Green. The gentleman in mufti is Deputy DA Ellis Loew."
I nodded, and Thad Green pointed me to an empty chair facing the assembly. I settled into it; Stensland handed me a sheaf of papers. "Read this, Officer. It's Braven Dyer's editorial for this coming Saturday's Times."
The top page was dated 10/14/46, with a block printed title—"Fire and Ice Among LA's Finest"—directly below it. Below that, the typed text began:
Before the war, the City of the Angels was graced with two local fighters, born and raised a scant five miles apart, pugilists with styles as different as fire and ice. Lee Blanchard was a bowlegged windmill of a leather slinger, and sparks covered the ringside seats when he threw punches. Bucky Bleichert entered the ring so cool and collected that it was easy to believe he was immune to sweat. He could dance on his toes better than Bojangles Robinson, and his rapier jabs peppered his opponents' faces until they looked like the steak tartare at Mike Lyman's Grill. Both men were poets: Blanchard the poet of brute strength, Bleichert the counter poet of speed and guile. Collectively they won 79 bouts and lost only four. In the ring as in the table of elements, fire and ice are tough to beat.
Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice never fought each other. Divisional boundaries kept them apart. But a sense of duty brought them together in spirit, and both men joined the Los Angeles Police Department and continued fighting out of the ring—this time in the war against crime. Blanchard cracked the baffling Boulevard-Citizens bank robbery case in 1939, and captured thrill-killer Tomas Dos Santos; Bleichert served with distinction during the '43 Zoot Suit Wars. And now they are both officers in Central Division: Mr. Fire, 32, a sergeant in the prestigious Warrants Squad; Mr. Ice, 29, a patrolman working a dangerous beat in downtown LA. I recently asked both Fire and Ice why they gave up their best ring years to become cops. Their responses are indicative of the fine men they are:
Sergeant Blanchard: "A fighter's career doesn't last forever, but the satisfaction of serving your community does."
Officer Bleichert: "I wanted to fight more dangerous opponents, namely criminals and Communists."
Lee Blanchard and Bucky Bleichert made great sacrifices to serve their city, and on Election Day, November 5, Los Angeles voters are going to be asked to do the same thing—vote in a five-million-dollar bond proposal to upgrade the LAPD's equipment and provide for an 8 percent pay raise for all personnel. Keep in mind the examples of Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice. Vote "Yes" on Proposition B on Election Day.
Finishing, I handed the pages back to Inspector Stensland. He started to speak, but Thad Green shushed him with a hand on his shoulder. "Tell us what you thought of it, Officer. Be candid."
I swallowed to keep my voice steady. "It's subtle."
Stensland flushed, Green and Malloy grinned, Blanchard hooted outright. Ellis Loew said, "Proposition B is going to lose hands down, but there's a chance to reintroduce it in the off-year election next spring. What we had in—"
Green said, "Ellis, please," and turned his attention to me. "One of the reasons the bond is going to fail is that the public is less than pleased with the service we've been giving them. We were shorthanded during the war, and some of the men we hired to remedy that turned out to be rotten apples and made us look bad. Also, we're top-heavy with rookies since the war ended, and a lot of good men have retired. Two station houses need to be rebuilt and we need to offer higher starting salaries to attract better men. All this takes money, and the voters aren't going to give it to us in November."
I was beginning to get the picture. Malloy said, "It was your idea, counselor. You tell him."
Loew said, "I'm laying dollars to doughnuts we can pass the proposal in the '47 Special. But we need to drum up enthusiasm for the Department to do it. We need to build up morale within the Department, and we need to impress the voters with the quality of our men. Wholesome white boxers are a big draw, Bleichert. You know that."
I looked at Blanchard. "You and me, huh?"
Blanchard winked. "Fire and Ice. Tell him the rest of it, Ellis."
Loew winced at his first name, then continued. "A ten-round bout three weeks from now at the Academy gym. Braven Dyer is a close personal friend of mine, and he'll be building it up in his column. Tickets will go for two dollars apiece, with half allotted for policemen and their families, half for civilians. The gate goes to the police charity program. From there we build up an interdivisional boxing team. All good wholesome white boys. The team members get one duty day off a week to teach underprivileged kids the art of self-defense. Publicity all the way, straight to the '47 Special Election."
All eyes were on me now. I held my breath, waiting for the offer of the Warrants spot. When no one said a word, I glanced sidelong at Blanchard. His upper body looked brutally powerful, but his stomach had gone to flab and I was younger, taller and probably a whole lot faster. Before I could give myself reasons to back down, I said, "I'm in."
The brass gave my decision a round of applause; Ellis Loew smiled, exposing teeth that looked like they belonged on a baby shark. "The date is October 29, a week before the election," he said. "And both of you will have unlimited use of the Academy gym for training. Ten rounds is a lot to ask of men as inactive as you two have been, but anything else would look sissy. Don't you agree?"
Blanchard snorted, "Or communistic"; Loew shot him a shark-tooth grimace. I said, "Yes, sir," and Inspector Malloy raised a camera, chirping, "Watch the birdy, son."
I stood up and smiled without parting my lips; a flashbulb popped. I saw stars and got a back pounding, and when the camaraderie stopped and my vision cleared, Ellis Loew was standing in front of me, saying, "I'm betting on great things from you. And if I don't miss my bet, I expect we'll be colleagues soon."
I thought, You're a subtle bastard, but said, "Yes, sir." Loew gave me a limp handshake and walked away. I rubbed the last of the stars out of my eyes and saw that the room was empty.
I took the elevator down to street level, thinking of tasty ways to regain the weight I had lost. Blanchard probably weighed 200, and if I came in at my safe old 175 against him he would wear me down every time he managed to get inside. I was trying to decide between the Pantry and Little Joe's when I hit the parking lot and saw my adversary in the flesh—talking to a woman blowing smoke rings up at a picture postcard sky.
I went over. Blanchard was leaning against an unmarked cruiser, gesturing at the woman, still intent on her rings, putting them out three and four at a time. She was in profile as I approached, head tilted up, back arched, one hand on the cruiser's door for support. Auburn hair in a pageboy cut brushed her shoulders and long, thin neck; the fit of her Eisenhower jacket and wool skirt told me she was thin all over.
Blanchard caught sight of me and nudged her. Letting out a lungful of smoke, she turned. Up close, I saw a strong-pretty face, all mismatched parts: high forehead that made her hairdo look incongruous, crooked nose, full lips and big black-brown eyes.
Blanchard made the introductions. "Kay, this is Bucky Bleichert. Bucky, Kay Lake."
The woman ground out her cigarette. I said, "Hello," wondering if this was the girlfriend that Blanchard met at the Boulevard-Citizens robbery trial. She didn't play as a heister's quail, even if she had been shacking with a cop for years.
Her voice had a slight prairie twang. "I saw you box several times. You won."
"I always won. Are you a fight fan?"
Kay Lake shook her head. "Lee used to drag me. I was taking art classes back before the war, so I brought my sketch pad and drew the boxers."
Blanchard put an arm around her shoulders. "Made me quit fighting smokers. Said she didn't want me doing the vegetable shuffle." He went into an imitation of a punch-drunk fighter sparring, and Kay Lake flinched away from him. Blanchard shot a quick look at her, then fired off some left jabs and right crosses at the air. The punches were telegraphed, and in my mind I countered a one-two at his jaw and midsection.
I said, "I'll try not to hurt you."
Kay smoldered at the remark; Blanchard grinned. "It took weeks to talk her into letting me do it. I promised her a new car if she didn't pout too much."
"Don't make any bets you can't cover."
Blanchard laughed, then moved into a side-by-side drape with Kay. I said, "Who thought this thing up?"
"Ellis Loew. He got me Warrants, then my partner put in his papers and Loew started thinking about you to replace him. He got Braven Dyer to write that Fire and Ice horseshit, then he took the whole pie to Horrall. He never would have gone for it, but all the polls said the bond issue was heading for the deep six, so he said okay."
"And he's got money on me? And if I win I get Warrants?"
"Something like that. The DA himself don't like the idea, thinks the two of us wouldn't work as partners. But he's going along—Horrall and Thad Green convinced him. Personally, I almost hope you do win. If you don't, I get Johnny Vogel. He's fat, he farts, his breath stinks and his daddy's the biggest nosebleed in Central dicks, always running errands for the Jewboy. Besides—"
I tapped Blanchard's chest with a soft forefinger. "What's in it for you?"
"Betting works both ways. My girl's got a taste for nice things, and I can't afford to let her down. Right, babe?"
Kay said, "Keep talking about me in the third person. It sends me."
Blanchard put up his hands in mock surrender; Kay's dark eyes burned. Curious about the woman, I said, "What do you think about the whole thing, Miss Lake?"
Now her eyes danced. "For aesthetic reasons, I hope you both look good with your shirts off. For moral reasons, I hope the Los Angeles Police Department gets ridiculed for perpetrating this farce. For financial reasons, I hope Lee wins."
Blanchard laughed and slapped the hood of the cruiser; I forgot vanity and smiled with my mouth open. Kay Lake stared me straight in the eye, and for the first time—strangely but surely—I sensed that Mr. Fire and I were becoming friends. Sticking out my hand, I said, "Luck short of winning"; Lee grabbed it and said, "The same."
Kay took in the two of us with a look that said we were idiot children. I tipped my hat to her, then started to walk away. Kay called out "Dwight," and I wondered how she knew my real name. When I turned around, she said, "You'd be very handsome if you got your teeth fixed."
The fight became the rage of the Department, then LA, and the Academy gym was sold out within twenty-four hours of Braven Dyer's announcement of it in the Times sports page. The 77th Street lieutenant tapped as official LAPD oddsmaker installed Blanchard as an early 3 to 1 favorite, while the real bookie line had Mr. Fire favored by knockout at 2½ to 1 and decision by 5 to 3. Interdepartmental betting was rampant, and wager pools were set up at all station houses. Dyer and Morrie Ryskind of the Mirror fed the craze in their columns, and a KMPC disc jockey composed a ditty called the "Fire and Ice Tango." Backed by a jazz combo, a sultry soprano warbled, "Fire and Ice ain't sugar and spice; four hundred pounds tradin' leather, that sure ain't nice. But Mr. Fire light my torch and Mr. Ice cool my brow, to me that's all-night service with a capital wow!"
I was a local celebrity again.
At roll call I watched betting markers change hands and got attaboys from cops I had never met before; Fat Johnny Vogel gave me the evil eye every time he passed me in the locker room. Sidwell, ever the rumor monger, said that two nightwatch blues had bet their cars, and the station commander, Captain Harwell, was holding the pink slips until after the fight. The dicks in Administrative Vice had suspended their bookie shakedowns because Mickey Cohen was taking in ten grand a day in markers and was kicking back 5 percent to the advertising agency employed by the city in its effort to pass the bond issue. Harry Cohn, Mr. Big at Columbia Pictures, had put down a bundle on me to win by decision, and if I delivered I got a hot weekend with Rita Hayworth.
None of it made sense, but all of it felt good, and I kept myself from going crazy by training harder than I ever had before.
At end of watch each day I headed straight for the gym and worked. Ignoring Blanchard and his brownnosing entourage and the off-duty cops who hovered around me, I hit the heavy bag, left jab—right cross—left hook, five minutes at a crack, on my toes the whole time; I sparred with my old pal Pete Lukins and rolled sets at the speed bag until sweat blinded me and my arms turned to rubber. I skipped rope and ran through the Elysian Park hills with two-pound weights strapped to my ankles, jabbing at tree limbs and bushes, outracing the trash can dogs who prowled there. At home, I gorged myself on liver, porterhouse steak and spinach and fell asleep before I could get out of my clothes.
Then, with the fight nine days away, I saw the old man and decided to take a dive for the money.
The occasion was my once-a-month visit, and I drove out to Lincoln Heights feeling guilty that I hadn't shown up since I got the word that he was acting crazy again. I brought gifts to assuage that guilt: canned goodies scrounged from the markets on my beat and confiscated girlie mags. Pulling up in front of the house, I saw that they wouldn't be enough.
The old man was sitting on the porch, swigging from a bottle of cough syrup. He had his BB pistol in one hand, absently taking shots at a formation of balsa wood airplanes lined up on the lawn. I parked, then walked over to him. His clothes were flecked with vomit and his bones protruded underneath them, poking out like they were joined to him at all the wrong angles. His breath stank, his eyes were yellow and filmy and the skin I could see underneath his crusty white beard was flush with broken veins. I reached down to help him to his feet; he swatted my hands, jabbering, "Scheisskopf! Kleine Scheisskopf!"
I pulled the old man up into a standing position. He dropped the BB pistol and Expectolar pint and said, "Guten Tag, Dwight," like he had just seen me the day before.
I brushed tears from my eyes. "Speak English, Papa."
The old man grabbed the crook of his right elbow and shook his fist at me in a slapdash fungoo. "Englisch Scheisser! Churchill Scheisser! Amerikanisch Juden Scheisser!"
I left him on the porch and checked out the house. The living room was littered with model airplane parts and open cans of beans with flies buzzing around them; the bedroom was wallpapered with cheesecake pics, most of them upside down. The bathroom stank of stale urine and the kitchen featured three cats snouting around in half-empty tunafish cans. They hissed at me as I approached; I threw a chair at them and went back to my father.
He was leaning on the porch rail, fingering his beard. Afraid he would topple over, I held his arm; afraid I would start to cry for real, I said, "Say something, Papa. Make me mad. Tell me how you managed to fuck up the house so bad in a month."
My father tried to pull free. I held on tighter, then loosened my grip, afraid of snapping the bone like a twig. He said, "Du, Dwight? Du?" and I knew he'd had another stroke and lost his memory of English again. I searched my own memory for phrases in German and came up empty. As a boy I'd hated the man so much that I made myself forget the language he'd taught me.
"Wo ist Greta? Wo, mutti?"
I put my arms around the old man. "Mama's dead. You were too cheap to buy her bootleg, so she got some raisinjack from the niggers in the Flats. It was rubbing alcohol, Papa. She went blind. You put her in the hospital, and she jumped off the roof."
I held him harder. "Ssssh. It was fourteen years ago, Papa. A long time."
The old man tried to push me away; I shoved him into the porch stanchion and pinned him there. His lips curled to shout invective, then his face went blank, and I knew he couldn't come up with the words. I shut my eyes and found words for him: "Do you know what you cost me, you fuck? I could have gone to the cops clean, but they found out my father was a fucking subversive. They made me snitch off Sammy and Ashidas, and Sammy died at Manzanar. I know you only joined the Bund to bullshit and chase snatch, but you should have known better, because I didn't."
I opened my eyes and found them dry; my father's eyes were expressionless. I eased off his shoulders and said, "You couldn't have known better, and the snitch jacket's all on me. But you were a cheap stingy fuck. You killed Mama, and that's yours."
I got an idea how to end the whole mess. "You go rest now, Papa. I'll take care of you."
• • •
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2006
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing