Hollywood P.I. McNulty pursues missing movie memorabilia only to find mystery and murder. 2,079 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As he approached the woman standing in the open doorway, McNulty nearly froze in his tracks. Though she was clearly in her early sixties, the wife of the legendary movie producer Nathan Grandstone was a much older and still strikingly attractive mirror image of dead Hollywood movie star Misty Marlowe.
“You’ll have to forgive the security guard,” Mrs. Grandstone smiled. “He’s become a bit overprotective since my husband’s stroke.” She ushered the Hollywood gumshoe inside and they retreated to the rear terrace where they seated themselves. “Lt. Ventura said you were coming by. Something to do with Julian Hayvenhurst and the auction house selling Misty Marlowe’s swimsuit.”
“Just a formality,” McNulty said, unable to take his eyes from her face which was so much like the one on the iconic poster of Misty in the missing billion dollar bikini. If sixty was the new forty, he thought, she was living proof. At first he thought she was winking at him, but quickly realized it was a slight facial tic next to her right eye. “We just want to confirm that Mr. Hayvenhurst was here when the bikini was stolen.”
“Indeed he was,” she said, pouring cold lemonade into two tall glasses. “We were discussing the auction, as well as some of Misty’s other mementos we were thinking of offering at future sales. He was here until quite late.”
“Mind telling me how Misty’s belongings came to be in your possession?”
“Not at all. She left them to me in her will.”
“You’re a relative?”
“A very close one,” she said, a Mona Lisa smile creasing her lips. “I’m Misty’s sister. We were twins.”
When McNulty stopped choking on his lemonade, Mrs. Grandstone explained that this was, and still is, one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets.
“On screen, Misty was every man’s wet dream,” she said. “Sexy, voluptuous and beautiful. But off-screen, she was too sensitive and high-strung to cope with the crushing burden of being America’s newest masturbatory fantasy. Personal appearances for her were a nightmare. All those strangers closing in around her, shouting and pushing and pawing. It was too much for Misty. Then one day she said she’d had enough and wasn’t going to do them anymore.”
“Pretty ballsy move for a young starlet,” McNulty said softly.
“A career killer,” nodded Mrs. Grandstone as her eye muscle twitched again. “And that’s when I stepped in. Misty was the woman everyone saw on the screen, but I was the woman everyone saw at all those personal appearances and Red Carpet functions.” She shook her head sadly. “My poor neurotic sister wasn’t comfortable in her own skin.”
“The ruse obviously worked,” McNulty said.
“It was my husband’s idea,” she smiled. “Nathan was Misty’s publicist at the time, although he was lousy at it.” She chuckled at some distant memory. “He used to joke that, had he been Osama Bin Laden’s publicist, they never would have found him.”
McNulty laughed. “But he was a very good producer,” he praise.
As most everyone in the industry knew, Nathan Grandstone’s rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood began modestly when he imported a number of Italian and Spanish “sand and sandal” actioners, re-dubbed them into English and four-walled them in small town theaters all across America. Every one of them made money, and, before long, he was producing Hollywood movies on budgets that were cheaper than the Christmas bonuses at Scrooge And Marley Counting House. But he learned the business and moved up to producing a string of prestige major studio pictures that were not only consistent contenders at the Academy Awards but surefire moneymakers at the box office.
“He did have that magic touch,” Mrs. Grandstone sighed.
As McNulty rose to leave and thanked Mrs. Grandstone for her hospitality, an attractive young woman in medical scrubs came out onto the terrace pushing a wheelchair with a very thin elderly man in loose-fitting cotton pajamas strapped to the seat. It was Nathan Grandstone, or what was left of him. McNulty could see that the stroke had left Grandstone paralyzed on his right side. It had also robbed him of his speech. Mrs. Grandstone made the introductions, identifying the attractive dark-eyed Russian caregiver as “our Tanya” before presenting McNulty to her husband.
“Mr. McNulty is investigating the theft of Misty’s bikini,” she told him.
Grandstone nodded and, as Tanya dutifully wiped spittle from his chin, offered his left hand to McNulty who shook it gently. As he did so, he caught an exchange of loving glances between Tanya and Mrs. Grandstone.
After making his goodbyes, McNulty waited until he was in his car before calling Lt. Tony Ventura.
“What’s up, McKnucklehead?” the LAPD detective snarked.
“Mrs. Grandstone backed up Hayvenhurst’s alibi,” McNulty replied. “Listen, do you have any idea where Tabasco is holed up these days?”
Tabasco was the street name for Ramon De Soto, a fence in high-end stolen art, antiques and Hollywood memorabilia. Everything in his inventory was hot, ergo the nickname.
“A billion dollar bikini gets stolen, odds are he’s either involved or knows who is.”
Lt. Ventura gave him Tabasco’s last known location, then added: “You can cross Bobby Roscoe off your suspects list.”
“You found him?”
“What’s left of him. A brush clearance crew found his body off of Mulholland. Critters made a meal of the auction house’s rent-a-cop, but it appears he’d been shot with a large-caliber handgun. Maybe a .357.”
“Fuck me,” McNulty muttered after clicking off. What had started as a simple case of stolen swimwear was now a cold-blooded homicide. And after he’d taken fire outside an Echo Park bar the night before while checking on Bobby Roscoe’s alibi, McNulty knew he could end up deader than the career of an over-forty film actress. “Murdered P.I.s don’t get paid,” he told himself while he started up his Japanese loaner.
He was pulling out of the Grandstone courtyard when a wink of sunlight glinting near the garage door caught his eye. A closer look showed it was a shard of automotive safety glass wedged between two of the courtyard pavers. He pried it out and examined it. Instantly, his mind went to the dark BMW 7-series whose driver had shot at him. McNulty had returned fire and exploded the rear window as the sedan fled the scene. Looking around, he spotted more shards by the closed garage door.
McNulty doubted the BMW was parked inside the garage. A quick look through a side window proved him right. But the glass and his gut told him that the car that ambushed him had been there within 24 hours.
McNulty made a call. “Saddle up, boys,” McNulty told Roy and Gene, the two Cal Tech department heads who moonlighted as his cyber operatives. “You’re on the clock.”
That night, McNulty’s so-called Nerd Ninjas were in a van decaled to look like a plumbing company, navigating the streets of Trousdale and hacking into the private security systems of homes near the Grandstone mansion. Unlike older programs that recorded on computer chips and memory cards, the newer state-of-the-art systems automatically uploaded their video files to cloud servers. Which meant that, with the right equipment and technical expertise, those files could be accessed and downloaded with relative ease by McNulty’s Nerd Ninjas.
“I’m only interested in the last 24 hours,” McNulty instructed the pair. “If I’m right, a BMW with a blown-out rear window will show up.”
The following morning, the duo were done. “Your hunch paid off,” Roy and Gene reported after sifting through hours of hacked video. “We got a black BMW with a shattered rear window arriving at the Grandstone residence at 2:45 a.m. We’ll send the edited footage to your cell phone.”
McNulty reflected on how far the P.I. trade had come since Spade and Marlowe prowled the shadowy streets and dark alleys of the City Of Angels. Back then, all a shamus needed was a fedora, a .38, and a mouthful of wisecracks. But these days gumshoes needed degrees in technology and computer science. Or, in McNulty’s case, operatives like Roy and Gene whose expertise in spying and eavesdropping made the NSA look like Helen Keller. McNulty thanked the Nerd Ninjas for the quick turnaround and assured them they’d receive a generous reward.
The P.I.’s first stop that morning was Lorenzo’s Auto Body where he picked up his repaired El Dorado and the two slugs dug out of the driver’s side door. “Good thing they missed,” Lorenzo said wryly. “I’d have a helluva time buffing those holes out of your ass.”
“Looks like they came from a large caliber handgun,” McNulty , then guessing it was probably the same one that had killed Bobby Roscoe.
The LAPD had already been to Roscoe’s one-bedroom Hollywood apartment, but McNulty decided to have a look for himself. He picked the lock and went inside. The cops had tossed the place pretty thoroughly and, except for a dog-eared paperback biography of Misty Marlowe, McNulty didn’t find anything that would lead him to her stolen bikini. But, with the vision of Misty’s long-ago suicide off the Malibu pier still vivid in his mind, he decided to keep the book to learn more about her.
His next stop was the bar in Echo Park where he’d almost been shot. He hadn’t found any shell casings after the ambush, indicating that the bullets had been fired from a revolver, but he wanted to be sure. There still weren’t any shell casings, but he did find more safety glass pieces that had been swept to the curb. His gut told him the Beemer was now at the bottom of a canyon somewhere, but he collected a few shards for comparison with the ones he’d found in the Grandstone courtyard.
Returning to his Caddy, McNulty eased behind the wheel and suddenly felt a wave of fatigue wash over him. He hadn’t slept or eaten since that night on the Malibu pier when he’d envisioned Misty Marlowe’s mysterious suicide. It had been so vivid that it continued to haunt him in random and sporadic flashes.
“What was it about that damn missing bikini that someone was willing to kill over it?” McNulty wondered half-aloud.
“Don’t you know?” asked a woman’s whispery voice from the backseat. “In Hollywood, they’ll cut your throat just to steal your studio parking space.”
McNulty’s eyes shifted to the rearview mirror and, to his astonishment, there sat Misty Marlowe — just as young, beautiful and sexy as she’d been in her iconic bikini poster. “This can’t be happening,” McNulty whispered. “You’re not here. You’re dead!”
“Am I?” Misty asked with a ghostly smile. “My body was never found.”
“So what do you want?” McNulty demanded.
“What I want,” she replied, “is for you to do what you do best.”
The sharp sudden honk of a car horn snapped McNulty awake, and it took a moment for him to realize he’d obviously nodded off and his head had hit the steering wheel. Rubbing his eyes, McNulty spun around to look in the backseat. Nothing. As empty as the heads of Trump surrogates.
“C’mon, McNulty,” he said loudly. “Get a fucking grip.”
After a quick stop at a popular coffee shop in Silver Lake, where he downed a trio of hot strong Central American espressos, McNulty felt refueled and reenergized. He took a look at the edited video which the Nerd Ninjas had emailed to his phone. From the hacked footage, Roy and Gene tracked the BMW from the moment it turned onto Loma Vista and then made its way to the Grandstone estate and finally pulled into the courtyard.
“C’mon, you son of a bitch,” McNulty muttered. “Show yourself.” No such luck. The Beemer’s tinted windows prevented McNulty from seeing the driver, but someone in a hoodie – it appeared to be a woman – got out of the passenger’s side and said something to the driver. A moment later, the garage door opened and she disappeared inside. The footage ended when the BMW, its shattered rear window clearly visible, drove off and headed north toward Mulholland Drive.
As far as McNulty knew, there were only two women living at the Grandstone residence: Tanya and Mrs. Grandstone. One or maybe both had tried to kill him. But why? Was a long-dead movie star’s missing bikini so valuable that it had led to one murder and made McNulty the target for another? Apparently, the answer was yes.
Part One. Part Three tomorrow.