Hollywood investigator McNulty must fulfill a comedian’s final wish. 2,287 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Lenny Hazeltine was dead.
“How dead was he?” echoed the voices of a phantom TV audience in McNulty’s head.
So dead he stopped getting robo calls from politicians.
So dead Nigerian Princes quit emailing him.
So dead his three ex-wives stopped suing him for more spousal support.
Yes, Lenny Hazeltine, one of America’s most beloved funny men, was truly, absolutely and undeniably dead. Not that he wasn’t used to it.
“I’ve died so many times on stage,” he would joke, “my undertaker’s on speed dial.”
But now, in the truest sense of the word, Lenny Hazeltine, the man who claimed he’d been cited by the Center For Disease Control for spreading infectious laughter, was dead. And that was bad news for McNulty, Hollywood’s most infamous private eye. Not only because a close friend had passed away, but also because the day had finally come when McNulty had to make good on his marker.
The IOU had come about a few years earlier when Lenny, one of the more notorious and self-admitted degenerate showbiz gamblers, invited McNulty to sit in on one of several underground poker games that had become a high-stakes pastime among A-list celebs, high-rollers and other moneyed mucky-mucks. McNulty’s invitation was a so-called “bonus” after he’d saved Lenny a bundle in outrageous spousal support from his second wife. To prove that she had been the unfaithful party, McNulty’s team of Nerd Ninjas had hacked into her cell phone and downloaded explicit photos and videos of her and a soap opera hunk engaged in a catalog of Kama Sutra positions.
“They were tied up in so many knots,” Lenny joked, “the Boy Scouts awarded them merit badges.”
The more popular of the underground poker games was Dolly Blossom’s, an extremely attractive, ambitious and ruthless young woman who had elevated her venues from dingy backrooms to the penthouse suites of L.A.’s poshest hotels. She served snacks of caviar and fine cheeses, and hired a coterie of beautiful women to serve drinks and offer massages to the players. It was at one of Dolly’s games where Lenny Hazeltine slyly tricked McNulty into signing a rather unusual IOU.
The buy-in was five grand a player, and there were nights when a single pot would go as high as $25,000. On this particular evening, they were eight hours into the game, with just over $12,000 on the table, when McNulty held a solid full house hand of kings over jacks. As the betting escalated with ever increasing raises, four of the players dropped out, leaving only McNulty and a high-powered entertainment attorney to battle. The raises had depleted McNulty’s stake, and it was clear to him that the attorney was trying to “buy” the pot.
“I’m going all in,” the attorney finally declared with an arrogant smirk, knowing full well that McNulty didn’t have enough to call.
With a shrug, McNulty was about to throw in his cards when Lenny suddenly spoke up.
“I’ll cover it,” he said with a grin. He gave McNulty a reassuring nod.
“I call,” McNulty said evenly. “Let’s see ‘em.”
Tight-lipped and red-faced, the attorney angrily spread his cards on the table. An ace-high straight!
McNulty fanned his winning hand out on the table. “Thanks, Lenny,” he said.
When the game broke up an hour later, McNulty took Lenny aside to settle up.
“Here’s the six grand I owe you,” McNulty said, pressing a wad of folded bills into Lenny’s hand.
“You keep it,” Lenny smiled, scribbling something on a paper napkin. “If my tax bracket gets any higher, the IRS’ll need Sherpas to audit my returns.” He handed the napkin to McNulty. “Let’s do this instead.”
McNulty looked at the napkin. On it, Lenny had written: MCNULTY OWES LENNY HAZELTINE ONE FAVOR. PAYABLE ON DEMAND.
Thinking it was a joke, and with Dolly Blossom and the other players looking on, McNulty shrugged and signed it. Little did he know then just how big a joke it would be.
Over the next six years, Lenny never once mentioned, or called in, McNulty’s marker. But now that Lenny was gone, McNulty decided to pay back the six Gs he’d borrowed, plus interest, to the late comedian’s estate. Lenny, however, had other ideas.
“What the fuck is this?” McNulty demanded, clutching the flash-drive he’d been handed moments earlier by Saul “Solly” Teesdale, Lenny’s attorney and the executor of Lenny’s estate.
They were meeting in a small private office at the ultra-exclusive Century City Country Club where Solly was hoping to tee off for a quick nine before lunch. The staid white-shoe club had for years been known for its strict policy of barring those of the Hebrew and Thespian persuasions. As he drove through the gate, McNulty recalled a story he’d heard about how the actor Victor Mature had been turned away at the club’s door.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Mature,” the CCCC manager snidely informed him, “but club rules prohibit actors from entering the premises.”
“I’m no actor,” Mature supposedly snapped back, “and I’ve got 26 pictures to prove it!”
It was one of McNulty’s favorite Old Hollywood stories and it always made him chuckle. But he wasn’t chuckling now.
“It’s Lenny’s last wish,” Solly replied, failing to suppress the smile tugging at his lips. “He’s calling in your marker.” The lawyer pointed to a laptop sitting on the desk. “Play it. Lenny will explain.”
McNulty inserted the flash drive into a USB port. A few keystrokes later, Lenny appeared on the screen. He was reclining poolside at his Beverly Hills home, wearing Bermuda shorts and a colorfully loud Hawaiian shirt.
“L’chiam, Mac,” Lenny said, wishing a long life to McNulty. “Of course, if you’re watching this, you’re now one up on me.” He took a sip of his large gin and tonic. “I’m sure you remember this,” he went on, holding up the napkin bearing McNulty’s IOU. “Well, it’s time to make good, old buddy, and I’m about to tell you how. As everyone in this facacta town knows, I was a gambler. Cards, sports, the ponies, you name it and I’d bet on it. Won more times than I lost, too.” He gestured to the palatial house and grounds around him. “But there was one bet I made – you were there — and I had to wait until now to win it.”
McNulty remembered the bet. At one of Dolly Blossom’s poker games, Lenny had suddenly and brazenly boasted that he could lie naked in bed with Hollywood’s reigning sex goddess, Eden La Peer, and make her howl with delight.
“Bullshit! You’re a fucking garden gnome,” the other players guffawed. “You’d be lucky if she let you in the same zip code.”
They had a point. Like many comedians, Lenny Hazeltine wasn’t the handsomest of men, but he had, over his long career, used laughter to entice many of Hollywood’s top glamour girls.
“Fifty grand says I can,” Lenny told them. “It’ll take some time, I admit, but I can almost hear her howling right now.”
“Sure, why not?” they finally agreed. “Fifty grand, it is.”
“Fifty grand from each of you,” Lenny said with a sly smile. “Bet?”
McNulty could see then that Lenny had something up his sleeve, and it wasn’t a hidden playing card. “Too rich for me,” the imvestigator said. “But you guys go ahead.”
The other five players, all Hollywood big shots, considered the odds were definitely in their favor. “Okay,” they said. “You’re on.”
And so, with two hundred and fifty K on the table, they all shook on it.
“It’s time I collected on that bet,” Lenny’s video continued. “And, because you owe me, you’re gonna help me do it.”
When Lenny’s video concluded, Solly asked, “So what do you say? You in?”
McNulty sighed heavily, knowing his nuts were in a vice. “I’m in,” he replied reluctantly.
Now McNulty sat in his office, quietly sipping his Glen Livet neat and pondering Lenny’s wacky assignment to pay off the P.I.’s IOU. Lenny’s video had made clear that, should McNulty not carry out his last request, Solly would spread the word that he was nothing more than a deadbeat. A threat that would not only permanently stain McNulty’s personal and professional reputation, but also impact negatively on his business. While Hollywood could tolerate just about anything – adultery, child molestation, drug addiction, even murder – welshing on a debt was the one transgression completely unforgivable, a heinous taboo held sacrosanct by a town filled with thieves, swindlers and con artists, or, as they were known professionally, studio executives, producers and agents/managers.
McNulty drained his glass. “Wanda!” he barked into the intercom, “Alert the guys. We’ve got a job to do.”
“What’ll I tell them?” Wanda asked.
“Tell ‘em to hurry,” he grumbled. “We only have forty-eight hours to pull it off.”
It wasn’t a lot of time, but as everyone in Hollywood knew, if the task was impossible, McNulty could be counted on to find a way to do it. Which is why Lenny was relying on him. Since his meeting with Solly, McNulty had spent the last few hours noodling possible solutions. When he finally settled on one, he knew instinctively that it could work. All it would take was a load of luck, and a pinch of showbiz magic to pull off the practical joke.
Besides the tight 48-hour time frame, McNulty faced two other major obstacles. The first was Lenny himself, who was a critical component in this whole outlandish enterprise, and whose memorial service and cremation would occur when the 48 hours expired. The second was the premiere of Eden La Peer’s latest motion picture, Midnight Seduction, which was a star-studded Red Carpet event scheduled for the next evening at the Hollywood Chinese Theater.
“She can’t be in two places at once,” Wanda observed after McNulty’s Nerd Ninjas hacked into Eden’s cell phone and downloaded her calendar and appointment book.
“Sure she can,” McNulty said confidently. “Call the Popped Cherry in WeHo. Tell Sasha I need him.”
There were other obstacles, of course, but those were minor and McNulty was pretty sure he could overcome them. He spent the next 36 hours lining up all the elements he’d need to ensure that Lenny’s last laugh went off without a hitch, leaving a lean 12 hours to actually pull it off. Logistically, it was like producing a major motion picture in two days. Not a lot of time, especially since his leading man would be a pile of ashes the morning after.
McNulty took out a burner phone and sent a text to Solly Teesdale: SEND PACKAGE.
The dapper lawyer read the message and, with a wry smile, nodded to the owner of the funeral home where Larry Hazeltine’s body lay in a polished mahogany casket. Sweating profusely, the mortician nervously wiped a handkerchief over his balding head and face. He was clearly having second thoughts.
“It was Mister Hazeltine’s last request,” Solly reminded him. “Not only have we indemnified you, but you’re being well compensated. If you refuse, I’ll bury you in so many law suits you’ll wish you were one of your own customers.”
“Fine,” the mortician gasped. “Just promise me you’ll have him back in time for the memorial service.”
“He’ll be here,” Solly grinned. “He’s the headliner.”
Solly signaled to four of McNulty’s operatives who lifted Lenny’s corpse from the casket, gently placed him into a zippered body bag, and carried it out a rear door to a rented van bearing the name of a bogus plumbing company painted on its sides.
As the van drove off, Solly sent a text to McNulty’s burner: PACKAGE DEPARTED. Then followed it with a second text: PUN INTENDED.
Not “ha-ha:” funny, McNulty thought, but Lenny would have enjoyed it. McNulty knew this was completely nuts, but this wasn’t the first time a celebrity’s corpse had been spirited away (pun intended) for a final send-off.
According to Hollywood legend, when actor John Barrymore, a well-known alcoholic, died suddenly in 1942, director Raoul Walsh reportedly bribed the mortuary attendants so he could drive his old drinking buddy up to the Mulholland estate of Errol Flynn. With the help of Flynn’s Russian butler, they carried the corpse into the house and sat him down on his favorite chair. When a drunken Flynn returned home, he nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw the dead actor. Barrymore was propped up in Flynn’s living room with a glass of whiskey in his cold dead hand, and Walsh sat across from him woozily drinking to his health.
“Jesus, Raoul,” Flynn exclaimed, “they’ll give us life for this!”
“Good.” Walsh hiccupped, then gestured drunkenly at Barrymore’s corpse. “He can use all they got!”
Another version of the story had Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, while shooting Casablanca, stealing Barrymore’s corpse and smuggling it into the home of studio chief Jack Warner, who, upon discovering the body, screamed out a stream of profanities so offensive people wondered where he’d learned such foul language. “Bette Davis,” Warner admitted. “Got a mouth on her that’d make a maggot puke.”
Whichever version was true, McNulty felt a strong kinship with those Old Hollywood rascals, all of them mad talented film buccaneers who never backed down from a brawl, a drink, or any other outrageous exploit that so gloriously captured the free-wheeling spirit of that long ago golden age. McNulty so embraced that era that he often saw himself as a man from another time when the movies were black and white and the people who made them were as vivid and colorful as a Technicolor print.