Tinseltown’s renown P.I. is back solving movie mayhem and murder. 2,268 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Didja hear?” Micki Finch asked. “Mitch Mandeville died this morning.” She waited a beat, then added: “They say it’s permanent this time.”
“Third time’s the charm,” McNulty said sardonically. “They say how?”
“Died in his sleep at an assisted living facility.”
They were seated at a table at the Spring Street Smokehouse, a small funky joint on the edge of L.A.’s Chinatown. It was a semi-annual get-together the two friends enjoyed when they wanted to catch up over some authentic southern barbecue.
“He finally got it right,” McNulty said.
“Sure as hell had enough practice,” Micki giggled. “Is it true he died twice before this?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘die’ exactly. Murdered twice would be more accurate.”
Micki practically spit her Pinot Grigio across the table.
“Are you fucking kidding me? You mean somebody actually killed him?”
“Well, it was two different somebodies,” McNulty corrected. “But yeah, they actually killed him. Or tried to anyway since he didn’t stay dead.” He calmly took another sip of scotch. “I’m surprised you didn’t know this.”
So was Micki. As the founder and editor of HollywoodByline.com, the highly successful website famous for its insider industry news and snark, Micki knew just about everything worth knowing in Tinseltown. She eyed McNulty skeptically. “How did I not know about this?”
“The studios kept it quiet and neither case ever went to trial.”
“Don’t tell me the killers got away with it!”
“Well, technically, they weren’t really killers since he—“
“Yeah, yeah… since he didn’t stay dead.” She mulled this over for a few moments. “So how do they know he actually died?”
“He flatlined,” McNulty explained. “Both times. Four minutes the first time, and seven minutes the second time. People in the biz started calling him the Lazarus of Hollywood.”
“Dammit McNulty, this guy bounced back more times than a producer’s personal check!” Micki said in an exasperated whisper.
McNulty just smiled and said nothing.
“Okay, off the record,” she said finally. “Now give.”
McNulty gazed up at the colorful collection of beer taps dangling from the ceiling. He seemed to be rewinding the movie reels of memory in his head. Only this wasn’t a movie. It was, in fact, the little known story of how Hollywood producer and former studio production chief, Mitch Mandeville, came to be murdered – not once, but twice.
The black Porsche came out of nowhere. All the eyewitnesses agreed on that. But security cameras along trendy Robertson Boulevard showed that it had actually peeled out of a parking space a short distance from the popular Ivy restaurant. The Vanguard Studios’ President of Production, Mitch Mandeville, had just tipped the valet when the Porsche suddenly roared down on him. The front right fender lifted him off the pavement and threw him hard into the windshield, cracking the glass. Several women screamed as Mitch’s limp body slid away from the Porsche and lay bloodied and immobile on the street.
“Call 911!” someone shouted. And someone did, right after posting the video on Instagram.
The paramedics arrived within minutes and, finding a barely beating pulse, bundled Mitch into the ambulance. Cedars-Sinai was literally around the corner and the ambulance screamed up to the ER entrance in less than two minutes. But by then Mitch had stopped breathing.
“He’s in arrest!” an ER doctor shouted as they hooked him up to a heart monitor.
The machine beeped erratically for a few seconds, then emitted one long steady signal as the oscilloscope registered an unbroken horizontal line.
“He’s flatlining!” an intern cried out.
“Paddles!” said the ER doc sharply. A nurse rolled a defibrillator up to the examining table. “Clear!” the doctor ordered, before zapping Mitch’s bare chest with the paddles. The doctor zapped Mitch three more times. No response.
“Three minutes, doctor,” the nurse called out, reporting the elapsed time since Mitch had flatlined.
“Epinephrine!” shouted the doctor.
The intern handed the doctor a long-needled syringe filled with adrenaline. He plunged it directly into Mitch’s chest and injected the epinephrine straight into his heart. Everyone held their breath, all eyes on the heart monitor.
“Four minutes, doctor,” the nurse recited. “Do you want to call it?”
Then, miraculously, the heart monitor began to beep. Intermittently at first, then normally as the steady line on the oscilloscope began to register the jagged spikes of a beating heart.
“He’s back!” the intern announced.
“Close call,” Micki acknowledged, biting into her pulled pork sandwich. “Did he suffer any brain damage?”
“The MRI didn’t show any,” McNulty said, gnawing on a baby back rib.
“Could have ended his career as a studio exec,” Micki mused.
“True,” McNulty nodded. “But he could have always found work as an agent.”
Micki laughed. “The cops ever find out who hit him?”
“They made an arrest,” McNulty said, wiping his fingers on a paper napkin. “Turned out it was someone he knew.”
Tessa Gower swore she was awakened by the sound of gunfire. It took her a moment to realize it was dark both inside and outside her bungalow office. She sat up and checked her iPhone for the time: 1 a.m. What the hell, she thought groggily, her head throbbing with a dull ache. She had lay down for a short nap after lunch and couldn’t believe twelve hours had passed. Another burst of gunfire echoed from the New York Street, where scenes for a gangster movie were being shot on the studio’s backlot.
“Unbelievable,” she muttered to herself. While her job as Vanguard Studios’ Director of Development could be exhausting at times, she had never before fallen into such a deep undisturbed slumber. “Maybe I’m coming down with something,” she groaned, though her forehead didn’t feel feverish. “Gotta go home and take a hot bath,” she told herself. “I’ll feel better in the morning.”
But another shock awaited her in the parking garage. Her Porsche was no longer there.
“That’s your story?” McNulty asked skeptically.
“It’s not a story,” Tessa snapped irritably. “It’s what happened.” They were meeting in the tastefully decorated Hollywood Hills home that Tessa shared with her fiancée. She was free on bail and wore an electronic ankle monitor after being charged with attempted murder. “Why would I want to kill Mitch?” she challenged. “We’ve lived together for three years, and just announced our engagement.”
“Several reasons,” McNulty fired back. “Starting with the $5 million life insurance policy that names you as sole beneficiary. The D.A. says it’s motive.”
“The insurance was Mitch’s idea,” Tessa confessed. “I have a policy naming him as my beneficiary.”
“Which we’ll prove in court,” interjected Tessa’s attorney, Allegra Chandler. It would be a few years before she and McNulty became a mutual admiration society. But for now all he knew was that Allegra was a smart and fast-rising young associate at one of L.A.’s prestigious law firms.
“Then there’s means and opportunity,” McNulty said. “Namely your car—“
“Which was stolen!” Tessa exclaimed.
“But wasn’t reported until ten hours after Mitch was run down.”
“How many times do I have to say it?” Tessa shouted. “I was drugged!”
“Not according to the tox screens!” McNulty shouted back. “All the tests came back negative.”
“Those tests weren’t administered until her arrest,” Allegra pointed out. “Four days after her car was stolen.”
McNulty nodded. If Tessa had been drugged – he guessed probably with the date rape drug rohypnol – any telltale signs would have been flushed naturally from her body in two to three days. A point Allegra no doubt would argue at trial.
“And finally, there’s opportunity,” he said, his voice softer now. “Who besides you knew where Mitch would be on that particular day and at that particular time?”
“Besides the people he was having lunch with?” Tessa asked rhetorically. “Just about everyone in Hollywood.”
“It’s a standing lunch date,” Allegra clarified. “He and his studio buddies meet at the Ivy every Wednesday at noon.”
“They call themselves ‘The Box Office Boys Club,’” Tessa said. “Whichever studio has the highest-grossing film that month has to pick up the check.”
McNulty stood and walked to the wall of glass that offered an unobstructed view of the Hollywood sign. He was clearly evaluating what he’d just been told.
“So what do you think, Mister McNulty?” Allegra asked.
“I think we have to prove your client was drugged,” McNulty said with a smile. “We do that, then the D.A.’s office has no case.”
“Agreed,” Allegra affirmed. “Right now it’s the only piece of evidence we can’t refute.”
“But how?” Tessa asked. “All the drug tests were negative.”
“Maybe,” McNulty said with a wily grin. “But I have a hunch they missed one.”
“Really, McNulty?” Micki sighed, shaking her head. “You actually used the word ‘hunch’?”
“Had to,” McNulty deadpanned. “Every screenwriter in Hollywood insists on it.”
Micki ordered another glass of wine while McNulty asked for a Scrimshaw Pilsner. “Did it pay off this ‘hunch’ of yours?” Nicki asked.
“In spades,” McNulty chuckled.
“Please, professor,” Micki prodded. “Educate me.”
Between sips of his beer, McNulty explained how rohypnol can settle in the protein and molecules of a person’s hair, which can then be detected weeks after the drug has been ingested.
“So I collected several strands of Tessa’s hair and we had them tested,” McNulty said. “She was telling the truth.”
“So she had been drugged.”
McNulty touched a finger to his nose. “Once we handed our findings over to the D.A.’s office, they had no choice but to drop the charges.”
“Not bad, McNulty,” Micki said admiringly. “Not bad at all.”
“But we still didn’t know who drugged her, stole her car and ran Mitch down.”
“That’s easy,” Micki snickered. “Whoever lost money on Mitch’s last greenlighted picture.”
After a month in the hospital, and another month in rehab, Mitch Mandeville was warmly welcomed back to the Vanguard Studios’ executive offices. Among those attending his catered homecoming were his loyal and relieved staff, several top studio execs who reported to him, a few friends and his lovely fiancée Tessa.
“You’re lookin’ good for a dead man,” McNulty joked when Mitch sidled up to him at the party.
“Nothing feels better than disappointing the undertaker,” Mitch laughed.
“It’s been a remarkable recovery,” Tessa added. “We’re all very happy he’s back.”
“I even got a thank you note from the life insurance company,” Mitch winked as he moved off to schmooze with his lunch buddies.
Because Mitch was one of Vanguard’s more valuable assets, the studio agreed to hire McNulty to conduct his own investigation. Mitch and McNulty had developed a friendly rapport over the last few weeks as the P.I. grilled the mogul about all the friends, business associates and acquaintances who might want to see him dead. “A couple of film critics come to mind,” Mitch had joked. “And one or two old girlfriends.” McNulty dutifully followed up on the old girlfriends, but they all had solid alibis. Meanwhile, he and his team interviewed studio personnel and studied surveillance videos. They concentrated on the day Tessa was drugged by looking at everyone who entered and left Tessa’s office and matching them to the fuzzy garage video of the person seen stealing her Porsche.
“How’s the investigation going?” Tessa asked at the party when Mitch was out of earshot.
“Still digging,” McNulty replied. “But we’re running out of suspects. Clearly, whoever did this not only wanted to hurt Mitch, but they wanted you to take the fall for it. You piss anyone off?”
“Just about every day. Every time I turn down a project.”
McNulty and his team then looked at all the writers, producers and directors who’d pitched projects to Tessa thirty days prior to the attempt on Mitch’s life. All were able to account for their whereabouts.
“Wait a minute!” Tessa exclaimed when McNulty told her they’d run out of viable suspects. She went to her computer and called up her submissions log. “There was one script that didn’t come through an agent. We don’t usually accept unsolicited material, but as a favor I said I’d give it a look.”
“A favor to whom?”
Tessa squinted at the log entry on the computer screen. Under the heading ‘Submitted By’ were the initials “MM.”
“Now I remember,” she said. “Mitch asked me to read it. It wasn’t very good. The reader’s report was scathing. I gave it a pass.”
“Do you know this writer?”
“Her name’s Billie Franklin and I wouldn’t call her a writer,” Tessa sniffed. “She manages the studio coffee bar.”
“Lemme guess,” Micki sighed. “This Billie person roofied Tessa’s chai latte, stole her car and went after Mitch.”
“That’s what it looked like,” McNulty said, taking another swig of Scrimshaw. “According to Tessa, on the day Mitch was hit, she’d gone to the studio coffee bar and recognized the manager as the person who’d written the script. Tessa told us she remembered the woman glaring at her and being surly. Tessa said she shrugged it off, figuring the woman was still pissed that her script had been turned down.”
“What’d the coffee bar manager say?”
“She admitted it. Not only was Billie Franklin pissed at Tessa. But at Mitch, too.”
“Why Mitch?” Micki scowled. “He’d done Billie a huge favor by giving the script to Tessa.”
“Turned out he was also giving it to Billie,” McNulty said. “And when he and Tessa announced their engagement, Billie felt used and betrayed.”
“Sounds like motive to me,” Micki chuckled.
“Billie vehemently denied drugging Tessa and trying to run Mitch down. But there was evidence,” McNulty continued. “And once we found it, I had a pretty good idea where it would lead.”
Part Two tomorrow