The showbiz sleuth follows up on a freeway hunch in search of a missing TV showrunner. 1,965 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
A hundred yards behind where he was parked, McNulty’s camera drone hovered over an area where the 14 freeway crossed over the concrete channel of the California Aqueduct. Suddenly, the Hollywood investigator’s eyes were drawn to something glinting in the sun on the center median. As he dropped the drone lower, he could see the shiny object was glass in a broken plastic shell possibly from a vehicle’s side mirror. There also were red fragments apparently from a tail light. McNulty realized that his hunch was gaining traction.
Directly ahead were two large openings that dropped some twenty feet into the concrete channel below and encircled by guard rails but not completely. For traffic moving north, the protection was on the south end; for traffic moving south, on the north end. The cost-cutting logic being that guard rails were only necessary on the sides facing the oncoming traffic lanes.
“What could possibly go wrong?” McNulty muttered, shaking his head at the stupidity.
As he surveyed the scene, he imagined what might have happened to Dana Delongpre when she suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. He theorized that she’d been driving north in the southbound lanes, lost control of her vehicle, skidded across the median toward the unprotected opening and then plummeted into the watery channel below. It was only a guess, McNulty knew, and he needed something tangible to make it real.
His gut told him it was lying there at his feet.
Thirty minutes later, he was standing in the Parts Department of the local Range Rover dealership. And fifteen minutes after that he was on his cell to Allegra, the lawyer hired by talent agent Blake Delongpre, Dana’s husband, after his arrest on suspicion of murdering her.
“I’m pretty sure I know where Dana’s SUV is,” McNulty explained to Allegra in a phone call. “I found some debris where the freeway crosses over the aqueduct. I’ve confirmed it’s from the same Range Rover model that Dana was driving.”
“Okay, I’ll make the necessary calls to organize a new search,” Allegra said excitedly. “If you were here right now, I’d kiss you.”
“If I were there,” McNulty said flippantly, “I’d let you.”
There was no denying that a strong mutual attraction existed between the two, but neither one had acted on it. McNulty made it a point to never get romantically involved with a colleague or a client. And while he was sure Allegra would be a truly compatible and attractive partner, he didn’t want a busted romance ruining a perfectly good friendship or business alliance.
That night, McNulty was scarfing down a plate of steak and eggs at a local diner when CHP Officer Chet Nichols in uniform walked in and strode over to the P.I.’s booth. The cop held a large manila envelope in his hand.
“How’s the search goin’?” he asked, sliding uninvited across from McNulty who was caught off guard. McNulty stopped in mid-chew. He had no intention of revealing anything to Nichols. Least of all that he had a solid lead on where Dana’s SUV might be.
“You stalking me, Officer Nichols?”
“Oh, hell, no,” Nichols chuckled. “But I did Google you. Know what I found out?”
“That I’m a private investigator?” McNulty whispered conspiratorially.
“Not just a P.I.,” Nichols said good-naturedly. “But a big-time Hollywood P.I. You’re the real deal, man! The guy all those celebs and showbiz big shots turn to when they need something done.”
“I’ll put your endorsement on my web page,” McNulty said, a note of sarcasm in his voice. “What can I do for you?”
“A favor,” Nichols said, slapping the manila envelope down on the table. “I’ve been working on this for some time now. It’s a movie script. Well, part of one anyway. It’s not finished.”
McNulty removed the thick stack of pages and fanned quickly through them. “A lot of pages here.”
“Yep, a hundred and ninety five so far.”
McNulty nearly spit out his food. Nichols had made a typical novice mistake: most screenplays were rarely longer than 120 pages. Anything approaching two hundred pages was either a biblical epic by Cecil B. De Mille, or a 30-minute sitcom by Aaron Sorkin.
“It’s called The Starfire Run,” Nichols continued. “It’s about an interplanetary bounty hunter who escorts an alien princess to a distant planet where she has to marry an evil emperor.”
“So it’s based on a true story,” McNulty deadpanned.
It took Nichols a moment to realize McNulty was joking. “Actually,” the officer said through a tight forced smile, “it’s more like a Western. Only it takes place in outer space.” McNulty had an idea where this was heading and Nichols didn’t disappoint him. “I was hoping you would read it and maybe pass it on to some of the producers you’re so tight with.”
And there it was: the motive for Nichols’ unexpected apology and persistent friendliness two days earlier. “Tell you what,” McNulty said as he stuffed the thick stack of pages back into their envelope. “For a fellow lawman, I’ll take a look.”
In truth, McNulty had no intention of reading Nichols’ script or passing it on. But there was no percentage in pissing off the patrolman, especially now that a fresh search for Dana was about to get underway. He didn’t consider it a lie really — more a taste of the infectious insincerity that greased the Hollywood engine.
By the end of the week, the operation was at full throttle. Traffic through the Antelope Valley was backed up for several miles in both directions due to the closure of lanes on either side of the center median. Overhead, choppers from several TV stations jockeyed for position while a Sheriff’s helicopter swooped back and forth over the waterway looking for any signs of a sunken vehicle. Amassed on the median were law enforcement vehicles and personnel from the CHP, L.A. County Sheriff’s, and Palmdale Fire, plus a corps of news reporters and their satellite vans, as well as Deputy D.A. Luis Alvarado who was in charge of prosecuting Blake Delongpre for his wife’s murder and the two LAPD homicide detectives who’d arrested him.
“God, I hope you’re right about this,” Allegra whispered to McNulty by phone. After all this personnel and equipment had been assembled solely on their hunch.
“We’ll know soon enough,” McNulty said calmly, stretched out in the back seat of his Caddy. “If she’s down there, they’ll find her.”
To pass the time before Allegra arrived, the P.I. opened Nichols’ screenplay and was surprised at how well written it was. He’d seen a few scripts by wannabe screenwriters before, and every one had been filled with more grammatical and spelling errors than a Twitter feed. Now more than 50 pages in, McNulty found the script to be cleanly formatted, visually descriptive and its characters compelling. While it superficially seemed like a typical sci-fi actioner, its underlying theme was the hero’s redemption.
Just as Allegra arrived, urgent shouts erupted outside. McNulty bolted upright, his eyes zeroing in on the commotion. He leapt from the car, took Allegra’s hand and led her hurriedly through the crowd.
A diver in a wet suit ascended the ladder that had been lowered into the channel and announced, “We found it. The missing Range Rover.”
“What about Mrs. Delongpre?” a reporter shouted. “Any sign of her?”
Silence fell over the group as the diver took a deep breath. “No one was inside the vehicle. It was empty.”
“Could she have been washed further down the channel?” another newsman called out.
“Possibly,” the diver replied. “All the windows were open.”
Turning to McNulty, Allegra said, “Do you think she could still be alive?”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” the investigator cautioned. “The longer she’s missing, the stronger the D.A.’s case for murder.”
It took several hours to pull Dana’s submerged Range Rover from the concrete artery that had, for more than a century, pumped water into the heart of L.A.. It was an amazing feat of engineering, and its controversial history had been featured in Chinatown. Once the battered and rusted Range Rover was settled on the center median, McNulty circled the damaged vehicle, taking stills and video with his iPhone. Ordinarily, he’d have been kept back while the CSIs collected evidence, but his diligence had led to finding the missing vehicle. McNulty couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something very odd about the scene. He retreated to the Caddy and was mulling it over when Allegra, who had been huddling with Alvarado and the homicide cops, walked up to him.
“You’re right. Alvarado is still going after Blake for murder one.”
“If they do,” McNulty smiled, “they’ll lose.”
Allegra’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you say that?”
McNulty explained the few things that didn’t add up. All the windows rolled down on a hot summer’s night, for one. “The A/C was on,” he noted. “So why were the windows down?” Another inconsistency was the headlights. “They were switched off. Who would do that on a dark highway in the middle of the night? And then why was Dana’s seatbelt unfastened?”
“It’s your theory, so tell me.”
“Because I don’t believe Dana was in the car when it went into the aqueduct. I think someone pushed it in. The windows were down to make sure it sank. I think she was being followed or chased by someone,” McNulty said matter-of-factly. “She more than likely switched off the headlights to evade whoever it was.”
“Are you saying Dana could still be alive?” Allegra asked, startled.
“Won’t know for sure until we find her,” he said simply.
By the time McNulty returned to his Westside L.A. offices, he had to push his way through a swarm of TV cameras and reporters all wanting to know how he had found Dana’s SUV despite an intensive year-long search. “Just solid detective work,” he said humbly. “And a lot of luck.
A jangle of ringing phone lines greeted him as he entered his outer office where his assistant Wanda was frantically trying to answer them.
“Any calls?” McNulty asked glibly.
Wanda replied with an extended middle finger, then shoved a stack of messages at him. Most were media requests for interviews or congratulatory calls from colleagues. But one message jumped out at him. It was from Nichols, saying he had emailed his now finished screenplay. Pushy bastard, McNulty thought, but that was to be expected. Not being aggressive in Hollywood generally meant you weren’t going far. Still, he had to admit what he’d read was damn good. In fact too good for a neophyte, McNulty decided. And that’s what was bothering him.
“See if this guy has any social media accounts,” McNulty told his Nerd Ninjas, Roy and Gene, moments after forwarding them Nichols’ email address. McNulty knew the two moonlighting Cal Tech department heads had the computer expertise to hack all the patrolman’s online accounts.
The P.I. spent the rest of the morning uploading the iPhone photos and video he’d taken of Dana’s battered Ranger Rover. Then, pouring himself three fingers of Glenlivet, he began to review the footage. He was looking for anything that would reveal once and for all what had become of Dana Delongpre.