Private eye McNulty returns to flim-flam a filmdom fugitive. 1,765 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The ex-President of Production of Vantage International Pictures, Vern Clybourne, was aware that Cuba had long been a haven for celebrities and scoundrels. Author Ernest Hemingway made it his home for 20 years,. Then there was fugitive financier Robert Vesco, a close friend and contributor to Richard Nixon, who took advantage of Cuba’s lack of an extradition treaty with the U.S. to create the perfect sanctuary for a wanted multimillionaire evading American justice. Despite the U.S. government’s 50-plus year travel and trade embargo, the mystique and charisma of the Caribbean island nation’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro proved an irresistible lure to many of Hollywood’s A-list filmmakers. Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio were just some of the names who over the years openly defied the travel ban. Their positive comments about both the country and Castro were later decried widely by the conservative media and U.S. officials. Vern basked in the warm realization that soon he, too, would join the ranks of these illustrious film names.
Now he licked his lips in anticipation as Senior Miguel Chavez opened the polished teak box. Nestled inside was a Soviet made TT-30 automatic pistol which was an exact replica of an American-made Colt M-1911-A1.
“Magnificent,” Vern whispered with lust in his eyes. “Che Guevara’s authentic sidearm.” He eyed Senior Xhavez suspiciously. “What about Che’s M-16 shotgun and grenade launcher that you promised me?”
“Still in Havana,” Chavez apologized. “It will be presented to you upon your arrival.”
“I see,” Vern nodded. Clearly the Cubans wanted to be sure he wouldn’t renege on his commitment to serve as an international judge for their newly revived Cuban National Film Festival. “As long as there’s still no extradition treaty between Cuba and the U.S., I’m there,” he promised.
"I can assure you, Mr. Clybourne, the United States does not know how many fugitives are in Cuba. Because nobody tracks it. And even if they did, Cuba is not sending anyone back because it still has no working extradition treaty with America even after your President Obama started normalizing relations with us."
“Excellent,” declared Vern.
“We’ll pick you up here in the morning and we will fly together from Nevis to Havana aboard the ministry’s private jet.” With a courtly bow, Chavez showed himself to the door, leaving Vern to admire the newest addition to his gun collection.
LAPD Detective Owen Whitley allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim light before venturing into the Frolic Room at one of Hollywood’s more popular dive bars that still retained the ambience of Bogart and Bacall, Gable and Harlow.
“I heard this is one of your favorite hangouts,” Whitley said after spotting McNulty sitting at the far end of tHe room.
“Reminds me of the old days,” McNulty sighed. “At least how I imagine they were.” A half bottle of Glenlivet scotch and two glasses rested on the table. “Have a drink.”
McNulty produced a thick manila envelope and slid it across the table. “Here’s everything you’ll need to drop the charges against Wanda.” His loyal executive assistant had been charged With kidnapping, false imprisonment and ID theft. “It proves that Wanda never sent threatening emails to Brenda Kitteridge or placed an online personal ad soliciting men to violently rape her.”
“How did you get this material?” Whitley said after going over the contents of the envelope.
“I’m a P.I.,” McNulty shot back. “How do you think?”
“You hacked Brenda Kitteridge’s computer,” Whitley guessed correctly.
“Well, this ain’t worth shit because you got it without a search warrant. So it’s inadmissible.”
“Not quite,” McNulty said calmly. “The evidence proving Wanda’s innocence is on Kitteridge’s hard drive. All you have to do now is get a warrant, find everything, take it to the D.A., drop the charges against Wanda, and collar the real perps.”
Whitley considered this for a moment. “Sorry, no can do. We don’t have probable cause to search the victim’s computer.”
“Sure you do,” McNulty said reasonably, pouring two fresh glasses of scotch. “You just got a tip from an anonymous source.”
After a moment, Whitley shrugged. “Works for me,” he said, clinking his glass against McNulty’s.
Detective Whitley, as a courtesy to the P.I., allowed McNulty to be present when LAPD uniforms knocked on Brenda’s condo door. “What’s this all about?” she demanded when Whitley presented the search warrant.
“Your computer,” Whitley told her. “And everything on it.”
“I’m calling my lawyer,” Brenda protested. “This is outrageous!”
“So’s framing someone for something she didn’t do,” McNulty snarled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“We’ll refresh your memory,” Whitley snarked. Then, affording McNulty one more courtesy, the LAPD detective stepped back and allowed the gumshoe to slap the cuffs on her.
“That hurts!” Brenda yelped.
“Now you know how Wanda felt,” McNulty said. He later confessed to Wanda and her lawyer Allegra that he made sure the irons were clamped “tighter than a Republican’s ass at a Gay Pride Parade.”
Once Brenda was in custody, Whitley allowed McNulty to watch her interrogation through a one-way mirror as she stubbornly refused to answer any questions.
“Doesn’t matter,” McNulty said when her attorney arrived. “It’s all on her hard drive.” He was right. As he and his Nerd Ninjas had discovered, all the emails incriminating Wanda had originated on Brenda’s own computer. “She’s an I.T. specialist and sent them to herself using specialized software that hackers use to disguise their own IP address and hijack someone else’s.”
“But why would she implicate Wanda?” the D.A. asked.
“Revenge,” McNulty replied. “We found a secret email account that Brenda was sharing with someone. He not only was her boss but also her lover. They used it to hatch the conspiracy against my executive assistant.”
“And who exactly is this someone?”
“Vern Clybourne,” McNulty said, then explained how Wanda’s persistence had been the key to unlocking the ex-studio chief’s financial fraud. “Vern and Brenda hid their relationship by never exchanging emails. Instead, they left their messages in a draft folder on a shared account where they could read them and then delete them without leaving an IP trail — a trick they picked up from former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus and his girlfriend who learned it from Al Qaeda.”
“Clever,” the D.A. said. “But as much as we’d like to prosecute Clybourne, he’s out of our reach.”
“But not out of mine,” McNulty said with a sly smile.
The car with two streaming Cuban flags on its front fenders arrived at Vern’s hillside villa on Nevis precisely on time. Vern’s valet glided out with a small suitcase in one hand and a garment bag in the other. “Careful with that,” Vern warned. “Don’t wrinkle my tux!”
Senor Chavez embraced Vern warmly then reached inside the limo and removed a carafe of chilled Mimosas from a silver bucket. By the time they reached the island’s airstrip, a small private plane was waiting where a dark-haired flight attendant greeted Vern.
“Buenos dias, Senor Clybourne,” she said. “The minister extends his felicitations and wishes you a pleasant flight.”
Vern squinted. “You look familiar. Have we met?”
Ten minutes later, the plane lifted off into the clear azure sky. “Havana, here we come!” Vern said loudly. Then, looking at the flight attendant again, he asked, “Are you sure we haven’t met?”
Vern and Chavez conversed about classic Hollywood, notably crime and detective stories. “They had glamour and style then,” Chavez opined. “Not the empty ‘bang-bang’ In movies today.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Vern said, slurring his words. “Go to France. No one does film noir better than those frogs.”
Chavez nodded. “This is the insight the minister wishes to have at our film festival.”
Vern didn’t remember drifting off to sleep; only being awakened by a soft shaking of his shoulder. “We are about to land, Senor Clybourne,” the flight attendant said, gesturing to the window. “If you would like to see Cuba…” Vern leaned forward and there below, was the crescent-shaped island surrounded by a vast sea of greenish blue. The plane made a perfect landing.
“Welcome to Cuba,” Chavez said as the plane taxied to a hangar. “I am sure your visit will be one you will never forget.” Vern walked to the open door, thoughts of a warm official welcome in his head.
What he saw instead was half a dozen men, some in dark suits and some in Marine uniforms, all pointing automatic pistols and assault rifles at him.
“Hands above your head, Clybourne,” shouted one of the U.S. Marshals. “You are under arrest!”
Startled, Vern looked around just in time to see Senor Chavez peeling off his straight black hair and goatee.
“You’re that asshole Investigator. McNulty,” the ex-studio boss sputtered.
“And you’re the asshole who tried to frame my executive assistant,” McNulty fired back with no trace of the Cuban accent he’d mastered. “Wanda, say hello to the asshole.”
Vern’s eyes shifted to the flight attendant as she, too, removed the dark hairpiece that had transformed her appearance. “Gotcha!” she said, pointing her index finger at him like a gun. “Again.”
Vern shouted defiantly, “You can’t arrest me! Cuba has no extradition!”
“True,” McNulty said. “But technically this isn’t Cuba. You’re on American soil now, dipshit. Welcome to Guantanamo Bay!”
“You lured that son of a bitch to Gitmo?” Allegra laughed later. “How’d you pull that off?”
“A little movie magic,” McNulty confessed modestly. “And a ton of money. Close to $75,000.”
McNulty, Allegra and Wanda were gathered in his usual corner booth at Musso & Frank celebrating the D.A.’s dismissal of all charges against Wanda after the P.I. orchestrated the capture of filmdom fugitive Vern Clybourne. McNulty then detailed the Hollywood pros who’d made the scam possible: a graphic designer to create the fake Cuban documents and film festival website; hair and make-up people to alter his and Wanda’s appearances; a dialect coach to help with their passable Cuban accents; and a prop man to recreate Che Guevara’s vintage pistol and shotgun. Not to mention coordinating the Feds’ and Marines’ permission to land at Gitmo.
“But she’s worth every penny,” McNulty added, patting Wanda’s hand.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Wanda chided. “We actually made money.”
“How’d you manage that?” Allegra asked.
“The reward,” Wanda replied. “The Feds placed a $100,000 bounty on Vern’s head.” She reached into her purse and pulled out the check. “Came in the mail this morning.”
“Do me a favor,” McNulty said, plucking the paper from Wanda’s hand. “When the 1099 comes in, just pay the damn taxes!”