P.I. McNulty is back to uncover a major con by a moviedom con artist. 1,764 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The big muscled middle-aged guy stormed through the front doors of LAPD’s Hollywood Division police station so forcefully that the duty officer instinctively reached for his holstered sidearm. There was no telling what kind of freaked-out meth head or crazed gangbanger might come bursting through those doors at two a.m., but this dude, apart from being pissed-off, was clearly none of those.
“I need Detective Whitley,” the man barked, the fire in his eyes as intense as a blast furnace. “Tell him McNulty’s here.”
A quick phone call later, the private eye was issued a visitor’s badge and directed to the desk of Detective Owen Whitley. Not that McNulty needed directions. The infamous investigator had been here many times before, usually to bail out some of Tinseltown’s higher profile celebrities. The last time was when his late friend Lenny Hazeltine was clocked doing 120 mph on the 101 in a brand new Ferrari and arrested for speeding, reckless endangerment and resisting arrest. (“Like I told the officers,” Lenny said, a twinkle in his eye. “My first wife ran off with a cop. I thought they were bringing her back!”) But there was nothing funny about McNulty’s early morning visit now.
“Where is she?” McNulty snapped.
The tall African-American detective with a shaved head rose from his desk as McNulty approached. “She’s in an interview room.”
“What’s this all about, Detective?”
“Well, sir,” Whitley sighed, “it appears your secretary—“
“—Executive assistant,” McNulty corrected him. “Wanda’s a lot more than a secretary.”
“Well, whatever she is, it seems she’s been up to no good.”
Whitley explained that Wanda had been arrested for impersonating another woman and creating a false ad on a popular website and then inviting men to fulfill her fantasy of being raped by a stranger. “The ad was placed ten days ago. Three days later, a nineteen year old kid attacked the woman in her garage. Luckily, she fought him off with pepper spray. The kid was arrested a few blocks away.”
“You’ve definitely got the wrong woman,” McNulty told him. “Wanda would never do anything like that.”
“She did,” Whitley fired back. “Not only do the victim’s and the perp’s stories match up, but we have the evidence to prove it.”
“Payback’s a bitch,” Vern Clybourne smiled when he read of Wanda’s arrest on the Hollywood trades and TMZ websites. “Nobody fucks with me and gets away with it.”
Sipping a piña colada on the veranda of his island villa, Vern decided it was the best $250,000 he had ever spent. It was, of course, a mere fraction of the millions he’d systematically embezzled from Vantage International Pictures where, as President of Production for eight years, he had chalked up an enviable record of highly profitable box office hits. The scam had been an easy one to pull off, consisting mostly of false invoices from bogus vendor companies he’d set up. Or he’d issue fake checks to a roster of stars, producers, writers, directors and others, then forge their signatures and deposit the amounts into his own bank accounts.
Most of the pilfered money was spent maintaining his extravagant lifestyle: the mansions in Bel Air and Malibu, the exotic cars, the lavish parties, the luxury vacations. The lion’s share, however, went to his legendary gun collection.
But that all came to an abrupt end two years ago. “If that sharp-eyed bitch hadn’t questioned that 1099, I’d still be Hollywood’s Golden Boy,” Vern had complained to his attorney about what had ultimately exposed his thievery. He’d written a forged check to McNulty whose sharp-eyed executive assistant Wanda had been unable to match to an invoice. She’d stubbornly refused to drop the matter until she got to the bottom of it. Now, thanks to her and her boss’s relentless detecting, Vern was a fugitive from justice.
But always a practical man, Vern had planned an exit strategy to a safe haven beyond the reach of U.S. jurisprudence, and where he’d be immune from extradition. That’s where the $250,000 came in.
“Congratulations, Mr. Clybourne,” said the voice on Vern’s cell earlier that year. “Your $250,000 donation to our Sugar Industry Diversification Program has cleared and you now are a full-fledged citizen of our lovely Caribbean nation of Nevis.”
“That’s it? I don’t have to take an oath or do anything else?” Vern asked. “Damn, that was even easier than screwing writers out of their back end.”
The following day, his Nevis passport arrived by FedEx. And seven months after that, Vern was charged in Los Angeles with embezzlement, forgery and wire fraud and ordered to relinquish his U.S. passport. Vern quickly posted bail and immediately skedaddled with his Nevis passport to the warm tropical breezes of his new island home.
But the best part, Vern thought smugly, was that even if L.A. authorities did discover he was behind Wanda’s frame-up, there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. As long as he remained where he was, he was untouchable.
Wanda’s arrest had occurred on a Friday night so it was standard procedure that she be transported to the L.A. County lock-up, where she’d be held for forty-eight hours until her arraignment that Monday morning. But attorney Allegra Chandler, who’d agreed to represent Wanda as a favor to McNulty, had to explain to the P.I. why Wanda couldn’t appear. “She’s in the jail ward at county USC,” Allegra said gravely, referring to the teaching hospital in downtown L.A. “She was attacked by a female gangbanger who deputies say was coming down from a meth high and mistook Wanda for a rival gang member.”
“How bad?” McNulty asked tersely, his anger boiling over.
“Cuts and bruises mostly. The docs say she’ll be fine but they want to keep her for a day or two to be sure. I’ve asked for a postponement on her arraignment.”
Now it was personal, McNulty fumed and swore a silent oath that he would not rest until he found the fuck who had put Wanda in harm’s way.
Forty eight hours earlier, Detective Whitley had flatly refused to divulge the name of Wanda’s alleged victim, telling McNulty he’d have to wait until Wanda’s arraignment to get that information. “Can’t have you interfering with our investigation, can we?”
Now, the delay would cost McNulty several valuable days before he could unravel this latest hairball which life had suddenly coughed up. Allegra knew he wasn’t one to wait for answers and called in a favor from a clerk in the D.A.’s office.
“The vic’s name is Brenda Kitteridge,” Allegra told McNulty. “She’s divorced, no kids, and works as an I.T. specialist at an ad agency. No connection between her and Wanda.”
“I owe you, Allegra,” McNulty said gratefully.
“It’s Wanda we’re talking about. This one’s pro bono.”
Vern was more flattered and intrigued by the letter than he was surprised because it bore the official seal of the Cuban Ministry of Culture and arrived hand-delivered by a diplomatic courier. It was an official invitation for Vern to serve as the head of an international jury of filmmakers for the newly revived Cuban National Film Festival, as well as a letter of introduction for Miguel Chavez, an assistant to the Cuban Minister of Culture, who wished to meet with Vern in person.
Two days later, the Cuban emissary was ushered into Vern’s palatial villa overlooking the turquoise waters of Turtle Bay. “Thank you for seeing me,” Senor Chavez said in Cuban accented English. He was a tall distinguished man with black swept-back hair and neatly trimmed goatee that rimmed his mouth and jaw. “The minister asked me to convey his regards as well.”
Vern gestured for his guest to be seated. “I’m somewhat puzzled by your kind invitation,” the ex-studio boss said. “Isn’t the minister concerned about my legal troubles.”
“Since you haven’t as yet been convicted of any crime, in the eyes of both the minister and international law, you are still an innocent man.”
“What assurances can you give me that I won’t be arrested after stepping foot on Cuban soil?” Vern asked pointedly.
“There is no extradition treaty between Cuba and the United States,” Chavez replied. “You will be as safe in Cuba as you are here. The minister also believes that your colorful past would assure worldwide publicity for the festival.”
“Give me a few days to think it over,” Vern said cordially, his furrowed brow indicating he wasn’t ready to commit.
“Perhaps we can persuade you with a more personal inducement?" Chavez tempted, "It is no secret that you are an avid collector of guns. I think you will find these of interest,” Senor Chavez continued, laying several 8×10 color photographs on the table.
“An M-16 shotgun with an attached grenade launcher,” Vern said, identifying the weapons, “and a Colt M-1911-A1 hand gun.”
“The Colt is actually a Soviet TT-30,” Chavez said softly. “It’s an exact replica of the American-made Colt.”
“Very nice,” Vern conceded.
“And very valuable,” Chavez added. “Both weapons belonged to Che Guevara. He carried them when he and Castro rolled into Havana and liberated our country.”
Vern’s eyes lit up like a starlet who, after sleeping with the director, actually got the part. “They’re priceless!” he gasped. “Tell the minister I’d be honored to accept.”
Hacking into Brenda Kitteridge’s computer presented a bit of a challenge to McNulty’s freelance pair of Nerd Ninjas. Not unexpected considering she was an I.T. specialist herself and had encrypted her laptop files. Nevertheless, after several days of trying, the Cal Tech cyberspecialists Roy and Gene used the Bluetooth in her car to access her iPhone and then backdoor into her iCloud files.
“Find anything useful?” McNulty asked.
The duo exchanged uncomfortable looks. “Hate to say it but we found a bunch of threatening emails from Wanda,” Roy admitted reluctantly. “Some pretty nasty shit, too.”
McNulty didn’t hide his disappointment. “You’re sure they came from Wanda?”
“Every one of them is embedded with her IP address,” Gene added. “Emails about how she wanted to see Brenda hurt.”
McNulty knew this must be the proof Detective Whitley had mentioned. “She’s being set up! Find out how!”
It wasn’t until Wanda’s arraignment a few days later that McNulty was finally able to see her. After she pled not guilty to the charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment and ID theft, the judge set Wanda’s bail at $150,000.
“Thanks, boss,” she said tearfully, knowing that McNulty had posted the money. “I didn’t do what they say I did.”
“I know you didn’t,” he said, embracing her warmly. “But we’re sure as hell going to find out who did.”