A scandal-plagued Big Media mogul has a painting problem. Guess who investigates? 2,772 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Allegra Chandler sashayed through the Polo Lounge like she owned the place. And, judging by the number of swiveling heads, she certainly owned the room. Why the hell not? She was movie star gorgeous, with an aura of insouciant sexiness and steely self-confidence that let the world know she was a woman who wasn’t afraid to spit in its eye.
As she zig-zagged across the outdoor patio, Allegra flashed a warm smile at the man who occupied a table in the far corner. He could see she was an absolute knockout. But he also knew she was more than that: whip smart, elegantly graceful, and as mysterious and complex as a movie studio’s profit and loss statement.
“Hello, McNulty,” Allegra said, brushing her lips against his.
“Still turning heads, I see,” the Hollywood private eye responded as Allegra sat down. “Martini?”
“Are they good?”
“Must be,” McNulty replied, beckoning a waiter with a wave of his hand. “The urinals are filled with olive pits.”
Allegra ordered a vodka martini with a twist.
“So how are things down at Dewey Fleecem & Howe?” McNulty asked, a jokey reference to the high-powered law firm where Allegra had recently been named partner.
“What do you know about Picasso?" Allegra asked him. "I’ve got a problem with one and I need your help to solve it. You’ve heard of Reynard Gladstone?” Allegra asked.
“Sure,” McNulty nodded. “He’s your law firm’s wealthiest client, and the 100-year-old media mogul who’s being sued by his two former gal pals after he eighty-sixed them from his house and his will.”
For the last six months, Hollywood and Wall Street had been salivating over the salacious revelations about Gladstone, who held the controlling interest in Excelsior Entertainment comprised of a movie studio, a chain of large metropolitan newspapers, several cable channels and a pro basketball team. Gladstone was being sued by his two mistresses – both 60 years younger than he, both claiming he was mentally incompetent.
“Not to worry,” Allegra said confidently. “The lawsuit won’t stand up.”
“Unlike your client’s pecker,” McNulty retorted. “Is it true his boner pills are delivered in such quantity that they require a cargo container?”
“No comment,” Allegra said with a wink.
“I wonder which is more expensive,” McNulty mused aloud. “His need for condoms or diapers?”
Ten minutes later, McNulty and Allegra were navigating the maze-like roadways of Bel Air on their way to Gladstone’s palatial hilltop estate. They passed through two ornate gates guarding an imposing French Renaissance mansion. The house was over one hundred thousand square feet, McNulty calculated. Big enough for the newly arrived Los Angeles Rams to play in, yet too small for Kanye West’s ego.
“Looks like a friggin’ museum,” the P.I. said.
“It should,” Allegra informed him. “It’s home to one of the largest private art collections in the world.”
“Including the Picasso?”
“Well, that’s what I want you to find out.”
McNulty parked and eyed two medium-sized moving trucks backed up to the front entrance. Four burly men in coveralls were sitting nearby. He also noted several hard-looking men standing sentry.
“Security guards from Excelsior Studios. Reynard’s son runs it,” Allegra explained. “And It’s moving day for the two mistresses. The son wants to make sure they don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to them.”
“Like a Picasso, for instance?”
“It may already be too late for that,” Allegra said ruefully.
McNulty and Allegra approached the front entrance and stepped into a cathedral-like foyer littered with packing boxes “Now suppose you tell me what I’m doing here,” McNulty addressed Allegra.
“I’ll tell you why,” said a thin reedy voice from above. “My Picasso is missing.”
McNulty and Allegra turned to see a small frail figure in a red silk kimono with gold piping descending the semi-circular staircase strapped to a motorized stair lift. It was Reynard Gladstone in the flesh. Or whatever that pale parchment-like tissue holding him together was.
“Should have brought some formaldehyde,” McNulty whispered. “The cryptkeeper looks like he’s a quart low.”
Keeping pace with Gladstone’s descent was a male nurse easily seven feet tall and as wide and muscular as an NFL linebacker. “Notify the National Park Service,” McNulty said. “One of their redwoods is loose.”
“That’s Hugo,” Allegra replied softly. “Reynard’s caregiver.”
When the stair lift reached the bottom of the staircase, Hugo unbuckled the old man and lifted him into his arms. McNulty stifled the urge to laugh. The pair looked like a ventriloquist and his dummy.
“She says you can find my Picasso,” Gladstone wheezed, pointing a gnarled finger at Allegra. “Is she right?”
“When you say ‘missing,’ what exactly do you mean?” McNulty asked.
“He means stolen,” another voice cut in. “By one of his gold-digging bimbos.”
Gladstone’s son, Maynard, pushed through the doors from an adjacent room. Unlike his father, Maynard was an attractive man, greying around the temples and attired in an extremely expensive suit. A USC film school grad, Maynard had hoped to make his mark as a movie director, only to learn that he lacked the vision and talent necessary to succeed in the Hollywood dream factory. But his business acumen was such that he easily became a studio bean counter and, with a nod to nepotism, had worked his way up to COO of Excelsior Films.
“So why call me?” McNulty asked. “Why not the cops?”
“We can’t,” Allegra said. “My client could be arrested for possession of stolen property. In this instance, the Picasso.”
“But he doesn’t possess it,” McNulty said reasonably. “It’s missing.”
“It’s not missing!” Maynard shouted in exasperation. “It’s been stolen!”
“We know it’s stolen,” Allegra said patiently. “Now it’s missing.”
McNulty suddenly felt like the straight man in an Abbott and Costello routine. “Well, which is it, missing or stolen?”
“Both,” Allegra conceded. “Missing and stolen.”
“Stolen by those money-sucking harlots!” Maynard said, pointing an angry finger at the adjacent room.
“Believe you me,” the old man chuckled, “money wasn’t the only thing they sucked.”
While Hugo carried Reynard upstairs, the group adjourned to the library where two very attractive, quietly seething, and well-dressed women were sitting on a pair of two tufted French provincial sofas. Cassandra Whitsett was a former TV series actress and now real estate broker, while Miranda Fulton ran a small public relations firm. Despite those careers, both women were better known around town as certified gold-diggers.
“This is outrageous!” Cassandra Whitsett cried. “You can’t keep us here against our will!”
“We’re going to report this to the police!” Miranda shouted.
“Keep your mouths shut!” growled the studio’s head of security, Jake Radford, a broad-shouldered man with steely eyes.
There was no love lost between Radford and McNulty. A former Deputy Sheriff, Radford had been forced to resign when he was photographed having illicit sex with female informants. It was McNulty who had taken the pictures and turned them over to the Internal Affairs Bureau.
“What’s that asshole doing here?” Radford demanded.
“Looking for douchebags,” McNulty sniped. “Thanks for making it easy.”
As it turned out, Gladstone’s missing Picasso had indeed been stolen. Only it was six years earlier during the second biggest art heist in history. A masked thief had smashed out a window at the Paris Museum Of Modern Art, skillfully removed five paintings, including Picasso’s Le Pigeon aux Petit Pois, from their frames, and escaped with $100 million worth of artwork. The Picasso alone was valued at close to $30 million.
“The other paintings are still missing,” Allegra said. “But the Picasso ended up in my client’s possession.”
No wonder Allegra and Maynard were reluctant to call in the LAPD, McNulty thought.
“And now that one is missing,” Maynard said angrily. “And one or both of these whores is responsible!”
The women protested in unison. “Our bodies are not for sale!”
“But the lease agreements are pretty liberal,” Allegra whispered to McNulty.
“Was Gladstone behind the Paris heist?” McNulty asked.
“No, not directly,” Allegra admitted. “The robbery was actually financed by one of Russia’s richest media barons.”
“So how did the Picasso wind up here?”
“A business deal,” Allegra said matter-of-factly. “The oligarch wanted the exclusive rights to broadcast Excelsior’s network and cable programming over his Russian satellite and streaming services. It was a deal worth billions for Excelsior, but Reynard wanted something to call his own.”
“The Picasso,” McNulty said. He wasn’t surprised. This was how rich fucks amused themselves. Theirs was a world where law, morality and decency were trumped by wealth, power and ego. Fuck it, McNulty told himself, he was here to find the Picasso, not indulge his disdain for arrogant egocentric assholes. “Where was the painting kept?”
Maynard crossed to a tall armoire and, using a keypad on the side of the cabinet, punched in a numerical code that unlocked its doors. Inside, the cabinet was reinforced with armor plating, making it a virtual vault. Judging from the size of the empty frame, the Picasso was about the size of a coffee table book and thus easy to hide and even easier to overlook.
“Was it painted on canvas or hard panel?” McNulty asked.
“Canvas,” Maynard answered.
“When did you last see it?”
“Yesterday morning. I checked on it myself. I also posted my security people around the house and grounds as a precautionary measure for when dad’s whores arrived to collect their belongings”
“So no one has been in or out of here in the last thirty-six hours?”
“No one,” Radford interjected. “We locked this place down tight!”
McNulty examined the keypad closely and noticed a trace of fine powder along the lower edge of the face plate, as well as on the carpet below it.
“Just my father and myself have the code,” Maynard noted. “Unless one or both of these bitches wheedled it out of him.”
“Give me the room for a few minutes,” McNulty said. “I want to check out something.”
As expected, Radford objected. “This is horse shit!” he bellowed. “You think he’s going to make the Picasso magically reappear?”
But Maynard overruled him, and the group left McNulty and Allegra alone.
McNulty wet his index finger, dabbed it on the powdery residue and took a sniff. He had a hunch as to what it was and began to formulate a theory. He closed the armoire doors and the magnetic lock clicked.
“Let me have your compact.”
“Do me a favor,” Allegra joked. “Find the Picasso before you come out of the closet.” She watched as he sprinkled the face powder into the palm of his hand and gently blew it onto the keypad. The face powder stuck to the four keypad buttons repeatedly pressed to unlock the armoire.
“Oily residue from the fingertip,” McNulty explained. “Now we just have to figure out the right order.”
It took a few dozen tries, but McNulty finally hit the right combination and the armoire doors parted. “That’s how they got in,” he said with a grin.”
“Way too smart for the bimbos,” Allegra said.
“It wasn’t them,” McNulty smiled.
“Dammit, McNulty! You know who took the painting, don’t you?”
“I have a pretty fair idea,” he admitted. “But we still don’t know where it is.”
“It has to be in the house,” Allegra said. “No one’s been in or out since yesterday.”
“Exactly. But I think I have a way to find out where it’s hidden.”
McNulty had a strong hunch the Picasso was hidden close-by. All he had to do now was to get everyone together in the library. He left Allegra to herd everyone, including Hugo and the geezer Gladstone, inside while he went out to his car. Minutes passed. Then, without warning, a high-pitched whee-oh-whee-oh filled the house with ear-splitting shrieks. Most of the faces contorted into masks of confusion and panic and their heads swiveled in all directions.
“It’s the smoke detectors!” Radford shouted. “We’ve got a fire somewhere!” Those who weren’t already standing, leapt to their feet and scrambled for the exit. As Maynard and Radford muscled the women out of their way, the library’s double doors crashed open, bringing everyone to an abrupt stop. McNulty stood there with a sparking road flare in one hand and an iPad in the other.
“No fire,” McNulty said calmly. “I just set off the smoke detectors. I wanted to know where the Picasso is, and now I do.” McNulty milked the moment as long as he could. “Right where Hugo put it.”
“Hugo!” Maynard sputtered. “How do you know Hugo took it?”
“It’s all right here,” McNulty said, waving his iPad in the air.
“Dis big bullshit!” Hugo grunted. “Hugo no steal!”
McNulty crossed to the fireplace and retrieved his iPad from the mantel and placed it on the coffee table. “I videoed the room and recorded it on this. Now I’m playing back the digital recording of the group’s reactions when the smoke alarms suddenly go off. Everyone reacted with confusion and panic. Everyone except Hugo.”
All eyes turned to the giant caregiver. McNulty widened the image on the screen, then zeroed in on Hugo. Instead of looking around like everyone else, Hugo’s eyes went directly to one of the two tufted French provincial couches. Then, while everyone was rushing for the exit, Hugo dumped Reynard like a script in turnaround and moved toward the sofa.
“Couldn’t risk a $30 million dollar painting going up in flames, could you, Hugo?” McNulty said.
“You no prove nothing,” Hugo smirked.
McNulty picked up the long round pillow roll from the couch and quickly unzipped the cover. There was a collective gasp as the P.I. held up the bared foam roll. The Picasso canvas was wrapped carefully around it.
“I’ll be a sonofabitch!” Radford said with awe.
“And you always will be,” McNulty assured him.
“Pretty slick, McNulty,” Allegra winked. “Ever consider a career as a private eye?”
Suddenly the enraged Hugo charged McNulty. For a man of his ginormous size, Hugo moved with extraordinary speed. He slammed into the detective, propelling both of them backwards into an end table, which toppled with a loud crash and shattered an old and ornate vase.
“Goddammit!” Maynard shouted. “That was a $25,000 antique!”
Then another antique was heard from. “Don’t hurt my Picasso!” Reynard cried out, cradling the rolled up Picasso like a baby in his arms.
As McNulty and Hugo traded punches on the floor, Allegra called out to Radford. “Don’t just stand there! Help him!” Radford pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. Then, like some Japanese movie monster emerging from the sea, Hugo rose up from the floor with a fierce growl. One of his enormous hands was wrapped tightly around McNulty’s throat, and it was lifting him completely off the floor.
McNulty’s legs kicked wildly in the air, while his face turned blue.
“Hugo kill you!” the giant grunted.
“Not before I kill you,” McNulty croaked.
McNulty’s right hand moved suddenly and, before Hugo could react, something sharp was pressing against the male nurse’s carotid artery. It was a jagged shard from the broken vase. “Let go or I’ll cut your damn throat,” McNulty wheezed. To prove his point, McNulty drew a trickle of blood.
That did it. Hugo put McNulty down and released him. “Hugo give up,” he grunted.
Things happened rapidly after that. The Picasso was put safely back in the vaulted armoire. Hugo’s silence was assured when Maynard hired him to replace Radford as head of studio security. Radford was given a studio development deal and, after hiring Miranda as his publicist, was never seen or heard from again. Despite his relief that the Picasso had been recovered, Maynard vowed to bill McNulty $25,000 for the broken vase.
“Don’t worry,” Allegra assured him. “My firm will cover it.”
Reynard was so overjoyed with his Picasso’s safe return that he offered Cassandra and Miranda $10,000 each to have sex with him one last time. Both women immediately agreed. And, for a payout of $100,000 each, they signed a non-disclosure pact about everything they had witnessed.
“And there’s an extra $10,000 for the gal who changes my diaper!” Reynard cackled gleefully, which provoked a hair-pulling cat fight over which bimbo would do the honors.
“A happy Hollywood ending for all,” McNulty said sardonically over dinner with Allegra that evening in a back booth at Musso & Frank’s.
“I knew I could count on you,” Allegra smiled. “But how did you know it was Hugo before the video confirmed it?”
“The powder on the keyboard and carpet,” McNulty grinned. “It was talcum powder. And what is talcum powder used for?”
Allegra’s eyes lit up. “To prevent diaper rash!” she said, laughing. “My God, McNulty, you amaze me!”
McNulty shrugged. “It’s what I do,” he said modestly.