The plot thickens and then doubles as McNulty investigates. 1,922 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Coffee bar manager Billie Franklin was startled by the sudden arrival of four men. She recognized Vanguard Studio’s Chief of Security and two of his uniformed security guards. She didn’t know who the other man was but suspected he was the private detective McNulty hired to investigate Mitch Mandeville’s hit and run. And from the looks on their faces, they weren’t there to order chai lattes.
“What’s going on?” Billie asked, clearly puzzled.
The security chief explained that they were searching the premises.
“Do you have a warrant?” she demanded.
“Don’t need one,” McNulty informed her. “The studio lot is private property and its security personnel is authorized to conduct any search they deem necessary.”
During questioning, Billie freely admitted that she and Mitch had been having an affair when she learned of his engagement to his Director of Development Tessa Gower. “He didn’t even tell me to my face,” Billie sobbed. “I had to hear about it on Access Hollywood!”
After turning the coffee bar upside down, the security chief informed McNulty that nothing was found tying Billie to Tessa’s drugging.
“My gut tells me something’s here,” McNulty insisted. “Have you looked in the coffee urns?” They hadn’t. “Empty ‘em.”
And that’s where they found the tiny bottle of rohypnol. It still contained a few drops of the drug. Enough to place Billie under arrest and turn her over to the LAPD where she was formally charged with the unlawful drugging of Tessa and the attempted murder of Mitch Mandeville.
“Congratulations, McNulty,” Hollywood business journalist Micki Finch said, clinking her wine glass against his beer bottle. “You cracked another one.”
“But subsequently Billie’s polygraph indicated she was telling the truth.”
“Well, if she didn’t do it,” Micki said, throwing her hands up in frustration, “who the fuck did?”
“There was only one person we hadn’t thoroughly checked out,” McNulty confessed. “When we did, we uncovered evidence proving it couldn’t have been anyone else.”
“You can’t be serious!” Tessa exclaimed when she found McNulty and the studio’s chief of security waiting in her office. “What makes you think I did it?”
“The evidence doesn’t point to anyone else,” McNulty informed her.
“What evidence?!” Tessa demanded. “There is no evidence!”
McNulty crossed to Tessa’s desk, lifted the blotter and picked up a manila envelope and shook out its contents. A dozen color photographs spilled out. All were high-quality still shots of Mitch Mandeville and Billie Franklin in various sexual positions. He’d found them after searching Tessa’s studio office the night before.
“Recognize these?” McNulty asked knowingly. “They were taken by the private detective you hired.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. How do I know you didn’t just plant them there to frame me?”
McNulty tapped the space bar on Tessa’s computer keyboard and an image identical to one of the photos popped up on the monitor screen. He tapped again and another identical image appeared. He continued tapping until he reached the last image. All of them identical to the photographs on her desk.
“You must have suspected Mitch of having an affair with someone,” McNulty told her. “So you hired a P.I. to find out who it was. Your phone records verify the calls to the detective’s office. When he emailed you the pictures and you saw that it was Billie, something inside of you snapped.”
“It was the script,” Tessa snorted. “As soon as Mitch asked me to read it, I wondered why. He’d never done that before. And when I saw how bad it was, I knew it had to be because he was banging the bitch.” A feral smile creased Tessa’s lips. “I couldn’t let him get away with it and make a fool of me.”
“So you roofied yourself and stashed the drug in one of Billie’s coffee urns to throw the cops off, then I was supposed to prove you were the victim.”
“You’ll have to come with us,” the security chief ordered Tessa. “The police are on their way.”
Tessa nodded. It appeared she was going down politely. But as the security chief advanced toward her, Tessa suddenly kneed him in the crotch and bolted for the door. McNulty sprinted after her. Panicked, Tessa kicked off her high heels and raced out of the Vanguard building.
“There’s no place to run, Tessa!” McNulty shouted after her.
But she was in full flight now, her only thought to get away when — WHAM! She ran straight into the path of an oncoming studio truck.
“The paramedics rushed her to the hospital,” McNulty recalled to Micki, shaking his head sadly. “But she was D.O.A.”
Micki whispered, “If that isn’t the definition of irony …”
“It’s close,” McNulty conceded. “But the real irony came a month later.”
“What happened then?”
“Mitch collected on Tessa’s $500,000 life insurance policy.”
“Well, she very nearly collected on his $5 million policy,” Micki said with a shrug. “Got to admit, McNulty, that’s some story. I’m sorry it’s off the record.”
So far Micki Finch’s lunch with McNulty had been a goldmine of revelations. It had begun with the news of Mitch Mandeville’s reported death earlier that morning. Micki now was aware that this wasn’t the first time Mitch had died. Which was how he became known throughout the industry as the Lazarus of Hollywood.
Now that McNulty had just finished relating the incredible events surrounding Mitch’s first attempted murder — a twisty tale of drugs, duplicity, jealousy and infidelity — the journalist silently fumed for agreeing to McNulty’s “off the record” caveat.
“It’d make one helluva film noir for HBO,” Micki told him.
“I think it’s more Lifetime,” McNulty said. “But like I said … “
Micki waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, off the record.” She took another sip of her Pinot Grigio. “So let’s cut to the chase, okay?”
“There was one more twist we didn’t see coming. Six months later, Mitch and Billie got married.”
“Oh my God!” Micki said, her laughter enveloping the room. “Only in Hollywood!”
“Buy me another round,” McNulty grinned, “and I’ll tell you how Mitch got himself murdered the second time.”
Five years had passed since Mitch and Billie had gotten married, and a little over three years since he’d opted out of his studio job to become a successful producer. Mitch partnered with his wife in Mandeville Moving Pictures and, according to the trades, the company was one of the few independents that consistently turned out good solid moneymakers in the horror and action genres.
But McNulty couldn’t believe his eyes when he walked into Mitch’s office on this day. The man’s man Hollywood had known as robust, handsome and physically fit had somehow deteriorated into a pale, sickly and gaunt shell of his former self. His appearance reminded McNulty of the joke his old comedian pal Lenny Hazeltine used to tell about going to the doctor for his annual check-up. “So I ask, ‘How am I doin’?’ And the doc says, ‘Tell your wife to make arrangements. You’ve been dead for two weeks!’”
The joke always got a laugh. Only now, seeing just how much Mitch had failed physically, McNulty was in a somber mood.
“Jesus, Mitch, are you okay?” the P.I. blurted out.
“I feel like shit,” Mitch acknowledged. “The docs can’t figure out what’s wrong. They think it’s some kind of parasite I picked up on location shooting Fury On The Amazon.”
McNulty thought, in a town full of parasites, this poor bastard had to bring one back from South America.
“Fortunately, all of our movies have done well at the box office,” Billie chimed in. “And, if we have to, we’ll spend every dime from them on finding the right medical specialist.”
“Since I’m not a medical specialist,” McNulty smiled weakly, “I’m guessing you asked me here for some other reason.”
Just then Billie’s cell phone rang and she excused herself.
“Two reasons,” Mitch said after Billie left the room. “The first involves Jade San Vincente, Hollywood’s newest and brightest young star who also happens to be the lead actress in our latest production A Whisper In The Dark. She has a stalker. But he says that if we don’t pay him $250,000, he’ll see to it that Jade never makes another picture.”
“A stalker and an extortionist in one,” McNulty mused aloud. “Did he say how?”
Mitch removed a small sheet of paper from his desk drawer. “He sent this.”
The paper had a crude drawing of a skull and crossbones with two terrifying words scrawled on it: HYDROCHLORIC ACID. The message was clear: pay up or Jade would be horribly scarred, possibly even blinded, and her career as an actress viciously and violently ended.
“Now that’s some scary shit,” Micki gasped. “No wonder they called you in.”
McNulty nodded. “Had to. If they called the cops, the media would hear about it. And if it went public, Mitch would be forced to cancel the picture.”
“And he couldn’t afford to do that,” Micki surmised.
“Jade was pay or play,” McNulty affirmed. “Shoot or no shoot, Mandeville was on the hook for her guaranteed $5 million. Mitch had everything tied up in this picture, both money and prestige. The film had a substantially higher budget than the usual Mandeville production, and was several notches above the company’s usual genre fare. It was already generating awards buzz with folks saying he could grab a Film Critics or Independent Spirit award. Mitch was boasting gleefully he’d even settle for a Golden Globe.”
Despite all the high hopes for the picture, an air of foreboding hung over each day’s shoot because of the threat against Jade. Mitch had refused to pay the extortionist, opting instead to hire McNulty and his team as an extra layer of protection for his star.
So far shooting had progressed without incident. But Mitch had prodded, “Stay sharp, McNulty. If anything happens to Jade, we’ll never recover. Her future and my company are in your hands.”
It was agreed that during shooting McNulty would be no more than twenty-five feet away from Jade, and the P.I. was confident that he and his team could counter any attempt to attack her. Nevertheless, while Jade was his priority, he couldn’t help but be concerned over Mitch’s failing health. The producer seemed to be wasting away from his mysterious and lingering illness. The producer’s voice was now barely above a whisper and over the last six weeks he seemed to have deteriorated even more.
“The doctors are doing all they can,” Mitch’s wife, Billie, reassured McNulty. “They’ve eliminated a long list of possible causes, including cancer, hepatitis and AIDS. They’re now looking at a multitude of blood diseases he may have picked up.”
They’d better find it quick, McNulty thought grimly, or their patient will soon look like an extra on The Walking Dead. Over the last six weeks, he’d noticed that Mitch was wiping spittle from his mouth much more frequently, was having difficulty swallowing, experiencing stomach cramps, and his hair was falling out. The clues were mounting up, and McNulty decided that if he didn’t do something about them then Mitch wouldn’t be around to accept his Golden Globe.
The P.I. decided to confirm his suspicions. To do so, he had his Nerd Ninjas temporarily disable the Mandeville’s home security system, sneak in, and collect strands of Mitch’s hair from his grooming brushes. He had the strands analyzed at a private lab which found that Mitch had indeed been ingesting arsenic.
Part One. Part Three tomorrow.