Hollywood private eye McNulty is probing a crime puzzler that’s more complex than a missing two-piece swimsuit. 2,782 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Guiding his El Dorado off the 101 Freeway in Hollywood and down Gower toward Sunset, McNulty put in a call to LAPD Lt. Tony Ventura. “That last location you gave me for Tabasco was old and cold. But I’ve got a pretty solid lead I’m following up now.”
For the past two hours, the Hollywood gumshoe had been canvasing Downtown L.A.’s pawn shops and pumping the brokers on the high-end for Tabasco’s whereabouts. McNulty was almost certain Ramon De Soto, the fence’s real name, was involved in the theft of long-ago actress Misty Marlowe’s billion dollar bikini from the Stardust Treasures auction house. The P.I. was well aware that many of the pawnbrokers were into hot merch themselves and might be inclined, for a price, to put a competitor like De Soto out of business. By the time McNulty got a good lead on the fence’s latest location, his wallet was $1,600 dollars lighter.
“So where is Tabasco?” Lt. Ventura demanded.
Laughing, McNulty responded, “He’s in the movie industry.”
According to McNulty’s snitch, Tabasco had set himself up in the property rental business and occupied office and storage space at the newly renovated Hollywood Global studios. “It’s not exactly the heart of Tinseltown,” McNulty joked, “but when you get to the spleen, turn right.”
De Soto, you clever bastard, McNulty thought with grudging admiration. Because the prop rental business was the perfect cover for someone who dealt in stolen goods. While the legit props – wardrobe, weapons, home and office furnishings, jewelry, paintings, and other stuff – could be openly displayed at the front of the fence’s new space, the hot merch items could be stashed out of sight in the back.
McNulty bluffed his way onto the lot with a bogus business card – one of many he kept in his glove compartment – identifying him as Daryl F. Selznick, an independent producer.
“I’m here to see Ramon De Soto about prop rentals,” the private eye explained to the gate guard, who made a quick call and then issued "Mr. Selznick" a drive-on pass. Not surprising. Even a whiff of money, legit or otherwise, was always a welcome aroma around a studio.
As McNulty eased his Caddy between the sound stages and production offices, he saw a familiar black Escalade parked in front of a two-story bungalow with a tastefully painted sign that read The Grandstone Film Company. The SUV looked identical to the one he’d seen inside the Grandstone mansion garage. And just like that, McNulty’s hunch about Tabasco being involved in the theft of Misty’s billion dollar bikini had suddenly escalated into a very real probability. The mere fact that Nathan Grandstone and Ramon De Soto were on the same studio lot had to be more than just coincidence.
The gumshoe parked in the visitor spaces for Tabasco’s studio rentals and ambled to the front entrance. A wide roll-up garage door was open and McNulty walked into the spacious showroom.. A slender but buxom young woman in a tight-fitting t-shirt came forward with an inviting smile.
“You must be Mr. Selznick,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Lola. How can we assist you?”
“Is Mr. De Soto here?”
“He’s with some clients right now. What exactly are you looking for?”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” McNulty told her. “Mind if I just nose around on my own?”
“Not at all,” she smiled. “Take your time.”
She left him alone and he wandered through the aisles, checking out various items as he made his way to the back of the showroom. He spotted a closed door with a sign reading PRIVATE! EMPLOYEES ONLY! NO ENTRY! McNulty reckoned that behind it was Tabasco’s stash of hot merch. Edging closer, he heard muffled voices arguing on the other side. As the voices came closer to the door, McNulty ducked out of sight.
When the door opened, the P.I. was surprised to see the auction house executive Julian Hayvenhurst, the producer’s wife Marisa Grandstone, and Nathan Grandstone’s caregiver Tanya walking out togther, followed by Ramon De Soto.
“I say we move what we have so far,” Hayvenhurst said. “Let’s not get greedy.”
“I told you, we have nothing to worry about,” De Soto, a tall and dapper Spaniard, replied calmly. “The longer the police investigation goes on, the more collectors we can sell to.”
“It’s not the police that concerns me,” Marisa interjected. “It’s that damn private eye. I don’t want him rummaging around in my life.”
“Relax,” the fence soothed. “He’s only interested in the missing bikini.”
I was – until someone took three shots at me, McNulty thought heatedly.
“I won’t relax!” Marisa said sharply. “I have too much to lose.”
“Maybe we should ask Rexford to take care of him,” Tanya offered.
Sure, McNulty snickered, right after the Grandstones’ private security guard stops ovulating.
When the foursome were safely out of sight, the gumshoe sidled over to the bolted door and deftly picked the lock. Slipping inside, his eyes were drawn to a metal clothes rack against one wall.
And there it was, dangling from a wooden hanger: Misty Marlowe’s infamous billion dollar bikini, the one pictured on her famous poster. But then he saw another. And another. Twelve in all, on wooden hangars.
“Pretty good copies, don’t you think?” Misty said, materializing behind him. “It took months to find the identical material.”
“Jesus Christ!” McNulty exclaimed, chalking up the apparition to his three-espresso breakfast. “All of a sudden, I’m Cosmo fucking Topper!”
“Have you figured it out yet?” she asked.
“I’m guessing the original wasn’t stolen at all,” he said. “It’s probably tucked away in Hayvenhurst’s safe deposit box.”
“Clever boy,” the actress smiled. “The world has to believe it’s stolen for the scheme to work.”
“I get it,” McNulty mused. “Why sell one bikini for $1.5 million at an open auction when you can multiply that amount by twelve and clear a cool $18 million from private collectors? And each one believing they’re buying the original. Plus, the publicity from the missing bikini meant Nathan Grandstone could re-release all of Misty’s movies and re-sell the streaming rights to Netflix or Hulu. Even more moolah!”
“I’d say that’s enough to kill for, wouldn’t you?”
“I can understand wanting me dead,” McNulty growled. “But why murder the auction house’s rent-a-cop Bobby Roscoe?”
“Maybe for the same reason,” Misty replied.
It took a moment for the thought to crystalize, but then it made perfect sense. Maybe Roscoe had found out the theft had been faked, McNulty theorized, and then tried to get a cut or threatened to go to the LAPD.
“Either way he had to die,” McNulty said half aloud. But there was no response. Misty’s ghostly apparation had evaporated into the ether.
The gumshoe was calmly rifling through Tabasco’s desk drawers when he heard a key in the lock. McNulty scooted behind the door and waited for it to close. When it did, he reached out and spun De Soto around, clocking him hard with a powerful right cross. Out cold, the Spaniard collapsed like a done deal at Paramount.
The fence’s cell phone suddenly pinged with an incoming text message. McNulty snatched it from Tabasco’s hand. The screen lit up and showed a string of texts, probably from a burner phone. But from the content, the P.I. knew immediately who the “Unknown” caller was.
“You son of a bitch,” McNulty hissed as he texted a reply: MEET ME @ YAMASHIRO 2 A.M. An answer came a few seconds later. C U @ 2.
“C’mon, Tabasco,” the gumshoe said as he lifted the semi-conscious man to his feet. “You don’t want to be late for your appointment.”
De Soto groaned and McNulty clocked him again.
Concealed in the shadows, McNulty watched as a car followed the serpentine road that led past the Magic Castle and continued up to the Japanese restaurant. Perched high above the twinkling lights of Hollywood, Yamashiro offered a sweeping view of the city’s neon-lit buildings and boulevards. At this late hour, the parking lot was deserted, making it the perfect spot for a clandestine meeting.
McNulty figured the driver would be early. Which is why he had arrived thirty minutes ahead of time so as not to be taken by surprise. As the car’s headlights swung into the parking lot, they lit up McNulty’s parked El Dorado, its trunk lid open to the clear night sky. The other car’s headlights blinked off, but the engine continued running as the driver cautiously emerged with a 9-millimeter automatic in his hand.
“Ramon?” the driver, a man, called out softly. “Where the hell are you?”
Muffled noises came from inside the open trunk, and the driver thumbed the pistol’s hammer back.
“Cut the shit, Ramon,” the driver snarled. “Show yourself.”
More muffled noises drew the driver closer to the El Dorado. He raised the pistol and thrust it into the open trunk. Tabasco lay inside the compartment, his hands and ankles bound with duct tape and his mouth taped shut. But there was something else. Pieces of swimwear fabric were draped over De Soto’s wriggling body. The twelve bogus bikinis!
“What the fuck!” the driver exclaimed. Suddenly, he felt the hard steel of a gun barrel pressed against the back of his head.
“Drop the piece, Tony,” McNulty said sternly. “Or you won’t have any place to put your cap.”
Lt. Tony Ventura raised his hands. “This is Hollywood, McNumbnuts,” he sighed. “Only directors and dipshit hipsters wear hats.”
“Tabasco says you were in on the scam from the beginning.”
“His word against mine,” Lt. Ventura said with a shrug.
Maybe so, McNulty mused, but it would explain why the LAPD Art Squad had been dragging its feet on the investigation, and why Lt. Ventura had given the P.I. a false lead on the fence’s whereabouts.
McNulty took the automatic from Ventura’s hand. “I wonder if this will match up with the slugs dug out of Bobby Roscoe,” he said.
“I may be a crooked cop, McFucknut, but I’m no killer.”
“Neither is Tabasco, but Roscoe’s dead and I came damn close to joining him.”
“Whoever tried to shoot you probably killed Roscoe. All I know is I had no reason to kill him because he didn’t know anything about any of this.”
As McNulty mulled this over, several police cars poured into the parking lot. “Right on time, boys,” he shouted to the arriving cops and detectives whom he’d called earlier for backup. Then, to Lt. Ventura, he added: “Looks like you, De Soto and Hayvenhurst are going to need lawyers.”
“Maybe for conspiracy to commit fraud,” Lt. Ventura said as he was handcuffed. “But Roscoe’s murder is on someone else.”
The Hollywood Forever Cemetery was as silent as a… well, tomb, McNulty thought cheekily. Especially now at well past midnight. But it was fitting that the meet take place at Misty Marlowe’s gravesite. Which was empty, of course, since her body had never been found after she’d thrown herself off the Malibu pier and drownded all those years ago. Still, a headstone had been placed for family, friends and fans to come pay their respects.
McNulty hated loose ends, and in the three months since he’d busted up the billion dollar bikini conspiracy, the mystery of who had murdered Bobby Roscoe continued to haunt him. So did Misty’s ghostly apparition, which floated through his subconscious whenever he pondered questions about it.
“If it wasn’t about the bikini,” the ghostly voice would whisper, “it had to be something so valuable that someone was willing to kill for it.”
Now the P.I. had the answer. He’d found it buried in the unauthorized paperback biography of Misty Marlowe that McNulty had lifted from Roscoe’s apartment. The auction house’s rent-a-cop had marked a passage noting that Misty’s best side for close-ups was her left. But the book’s author also quoted the Director of Photography on her first two pictures as saying there was an even more aesthetic reason for shooting her from that angle. And, just like that, everything fell into place.
As the headlights of an approaching car cut through the cemetery darkness, McNulty drew his Sig Sauer and placed it on the memorial’s marble base and steeled himself. Roscoe’s killer was coming.
“I didn’t figure you for a blackmailer,” Mrs. Grandstone said as she emerged from the front passenger seat of the Escalade.
“I’m not,” McNulty told her. “I sent those notes to lure you here.”
For the past few days, he’d texted her cryptic anonymous messages demanding money and threatening to spill her long-held secret to the cops if she didn’t pay.
He patted the headstone. “Appropriate, don’t you think?”
“If you don’t want money, then what do you want?” Marisa huffed.
“I want you to plead guilty to the shooting death of Bobby Roscoe,” McNulty replied. “And to the murder of your twin sister.”
Even in the dim moonlight, McNulty could see the involuntary muscle twitch by her right eye.
“I don’t know what you think you know, Mr. McNulty, but I …”
“I know that you killed them both,” he said sharply.
“I kill Bobby Roscoe,” Tanya the Russian caregiver said, climbing out of the SUV and leveling a .357 Magnum at McNulty’s chest. “I kill him for her and me. We’re in love.”
“So that’s why the gun that shot him belonged to that dipshit Rexford,” McNulty grinned. “He in on this, too?”
“Nyet!” Tanya said defiantly. “I drug him after we fuck, then I take his gun. Then I shoot that shit Roscoe and try to shoot you.”
“So it was you two who nearly blew my head off?”
“I was afraid you’d figure out the truth,” Marisa explained. “Turns out I was right.”
“Does Tanya know that you killed your sister and took her place?”
“What is he saying?” Tanya asked, suddenly confused.
“I’m saying that Misty Marlowe isn’t as dead as everyone thinks.” McNulty smiled knowingly. “She just needed everyone to think she was.”
“Of course I killed her,” Misty snarled. “I hated what I was, what Hollywood turned me into — something to be stared at, pawed and drooled over. I may have been a rising movie star, but Marisa had everything I really wanted: a rich husband, a big home, a respectable life. So I killed her, faked my suicide and took over her life.”
“But Roscoe discovered who you really were and – what? – tried to blackmail you?”
“All because of that goddamn bikini,” Misty sighed. “Every time I met with Julian at the auction house, I could feel that damn rent-a-cop’s eyes on me.”
“It was the twitch,” McNulty added. “By your right eye. He’d read your biography and knew why you were only photographed from the left.”
“Enough!” Misty snapped. She turned to Tanya. “If you love me, you’ll kill him right now!”
“You don’t think I’m alone, do you?” McNulty said quickly. “There are two snipers out there with rifles trained on you both at this moment.”
The women’s eyes shifted nervously.
“Those red dots on your chests are from their laser sights,” the P.I. continued calmly. “You’ll both be dead before you hit the ground.”
Misty and Tanya looked for the red dots on each other’s chest. Tanya suddenly panicked, tossed the pistol on the hood of the Escalade and threw her hands in the air. “Nyet, don’t shoot!” the caregiver cried out as she dropped to her knees. Then she buried her face in her hands, sobbing.
“Damn you, dick!” Misty shrieked and snatched the weapon from the hood. “I’ll kill you for this!”
But McNulty was a fraction quicker. Grabbing his automatic from the marble memorial, he squeezed off a single shot. The bullet ripped into Misty’s chest, nearly knocking her off her feet. The gun dropped from her hand and she staggered toward McNulty, but never reached him. She collapsed dead at the base of the headstone that bore her name.
The gumshoe heard Roy and Gene running from the nearby shadows. “Holy Christ!” Roy said, stuffing the two laser pointers into his shirt pocket. “I didn’t see that coming.”
“Did you get it all?” McNulty asked, looking at Gene who was wearing earphones and carrying a long-range parabolic microphone and a digital camera with a night vision lens.
“Loud and clear,” Gene stated. He looked down at Misty’s still shapely body. “Sure was a looker, wasn’t she?”
McNulty could have sworn he saw a vague transparent entity standing among the tombstones, and realized then that it hadn’t been Misty haunting him. It had been Marisa.
“So that’s the famous Misty Marlowe,” Roy remarked matter-of-factly.
“Yes,” McNulty nodded. “And decades late for her own funeral.”