Hollywood P.I. McNulty is back, hired by a missing TV showrunner’s husband accused of murder. 2,064 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Nearly a year had passed since Dana Delongpre had gone missing. She and her Range Rover had seemingly evaporated into thin air on a dark and lonely stretch of Mojave Desert highway. Now you see her, now you don’t like some spangled magician’s assistant in a Vegas lounge act. But this was no magic trick, nor was it just another routine missing person’s case. This was news. Not just in Hollywood where Dana was the creator of a hit TV series, but throughout the world because, well, she was the creator and showrunner of a hit TV series.
“Dozens of people go missing every day,” McNulty grumbled at the time. “But when there’s a Hollywood connection, the media’s all over it like glitter on a pole dancer.”
As the days blended into weeks, media speculation about Dana’s disappearance ran the gamut from running off with a lover to alien abduction. What was known for sure was that Dana was driving back from a location shoot near Lone Pine, a three-hour drive from L.A., after filming on her series The Paradox Files had gone late and she’d left sometime after eleven p.m. Pings from her cell phone showed her heading south on 395 before taking the southbound Antelope Valley Freeway. She was even picked up on surveillance cameras buying gas and coffee at a convenience store on the outskirts of Palmdale. That was the last time anyone saw her. Authorities quickly launched an intensive week-long ground and air search along the freeway and the intersecting California Aqueduct, but found no trace of Dana or her Range Rover.
Now, as the first anniversary of her disappearance approached, the media was interested in the case once again. Only this time they dug up new information that Dana’s marriage had been a troubled one. She and her husband were on the verge of divorce, and police had responded to at least two domestic violence calls. As a result, what had started out as a tragic missing person was now being looked at as a possible murder investigation. And that made Dana’s talent agent husband the prime suspect.
“Everyone thinks I’m guilty,” Blake Delongpre complained as he sat in McNulty’s usual back corner booth at Musso & Frank in Hollywood. “The cops, the D.A., the media…” His voice trailed off. “I had nothing to do with Dana’s disappearance. And I sure as hell didn’t kill her!” He took a deep breath. “I’d like you to prove it.”
“What if I prove you did it?” McNulty asked.
“I’ll stop payment on the check.”
That Blake still had a sense of humor appealed to the Hollywood P.I., and by the time they finished lunch, McNulty agreed to look into Dana’s disappearance. But not before pocketing a generous retainer.
Two days later, Robbery-Homicide detectives showed up at Blake Delongpre’s talent agency and arrested him for the murder of his wife. But, without a body, his conviction would be tough though not impossible. The prosecution still had a ton of circumstantial evidence, including traces of Dana’s blood found near a potting table in the Delongpres’ garage.
“As any lawyer can tell you,” McNulty sagely told his assistant Wanda, “many a defendant has been convicted on far less."
Few drivers took more than a passing glance at the vintage fiery red 1965 El Dorado convertible parked well off the shoulder of the southbound 14 freeway. Nor did they take much notice of the man in the back seat whose eyes were locked on the screen of his laptop. But one driver did take notice — the California Highway Patrolman who had noticed the El Dorado for the last two days. Not in the same spot, mind you, but advancing and stopping a few miles forward each day. The officer had a hunch who the guy in the Caddy might be and decided today was the day to confirm his suspicion.
Hearing the crunch of tires rolling up behind him, McNulty kept his focus on the computer screen. He expertly fingered the small console and gently landed the camera drone onto a barren patch of sand in the center median a few hundred yards ahead.
“How can I help you, officer?” McNulty said cordially, looking up at the patrolman who was coolly checking out the classic Caddy. The enamel tag on his shirt said his name was NIchols. McNulty resisted the urge to ask him if he had change for a dime.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Officer Chet Nichols replied, turning his aviator sunglasses toward McNulty with that cocky air of authority which California cops liked to project when dealing with civilians.
But McNulty was not impressed or intimidated by the uniform or the badge or the cop wearing them. “No help needed,” McNulty said, smiling. “Just looking around.”
“For anything in particular?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” McNulty said, letting his answer hang there. What followed was a long awkward pause.
“Mind telling me what?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” McNulty again said nothing further.
Nichols stiffened, torqueing his jaw muscles. He hated wiseasses and this one was taking top honors. “How about you show me some identification?"
McNulty amiably flipped open his leather ID case. Nichols peered at the state-issued investigator’s card. “P.I.?” the officer sneered. “I thought so.”
“I used to be a cop,” McNulty smiled. “But decided to make an honest living instead.”
Nichols’ jaw muscles pumped like a heart in cardiac arrest. “Let me guess, you’re looking for that missing Delongpre woman.”
“I am,” McNulty affirmed. He tapped a few keys on the laptop and a photo of Dana popped up on the screen. “Ever see her before?”
“Never,” Nichols said emphatically. “With all the fuss they keep making over her disappearance, I’d have remembered. You best be moving along now. Otherwise, I’ll cite you as a safety hazard.”
“Better write me up then,” McNulty said, thumbing the remote control buttons for his camera drone. “But then I’ll have to file a complaint for harassment. Not only am I too far off the freeway to be a hazard, but I have the video to prove it.”
Nichols followed McNulty’s eyes overhead and saw the drone. Son of a bitch! He’d have liked nothing better than to jam this asshole up with a bogus charge of resisting arrest. But instead, the officer asked, “You have a permit to fly that thing?” McNulty showed it, leaving the cop no other option than to take his own advice and move along.
“Thanks for stopping by,” McNulty needled as Nichols climbed into his cruiser and left in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes.
It took McNulty another three days to scour the twenty miles of desolate asphalt between Palmdale and Agua Dulce. He was searching for any sign that would indicate where a vehicle might have gone off the road. He found lots of debris and paint scrapings, but none that matched Dana’s Range Rover. It was a long and tedious process but without his drone camera it would have taken him twice as long. And Officer Nichols’ frequent drive-bys were a constant and irritating reminder that McNulty had to be extra scrupulous about avoiding any horseshit traffic violations.
“What’d you expect?” lawyer Allegra Chandler laughed when McNulty bitched about it over the phone. “You can’t expect to poke the bear and not get bit.” McNulty hadn’t seen Allegra since he’d helped her find a client’s missing Picasso months earlier. But now that she was defending Blake Delongpre, she and McNulty were a team once again. “Find any trace at all?” she asked.
“Dead end,” McNulty sighed wearily.
“So what now?”
“Do you have the surveillance from the convenience store?”
“We have the footage showing Dana was there. Why?”
“Most of that stuff is stored on cloud servers,” McNulty told her. “Let’s see who else came in that night.”
“I’ll issue a subpoena,” Allegra said.
“Forward the download to Wanda,” McNulty instructed. “I want my tech guys to enhance it.”
The following day, McNulty packed up his gear and topped off his gas tank before pointing his Caddy south for L.A.. He was ten minutes out of Palmdale when he found himself behind an eighteen-wheeler that was rumbling along well under the 65 mph speed limit. As McNulty swooped into the passing lane, the semi driver blasted his air horn in a long ear-piercing shriek as a warning.
Dead ahead a car was speeding toward them and weaving erratically against oncoming traffic.
“Jesus, a wrong-way driver!” McNulty gasped.
Instinctively, the P.I. swerved onto the center median and hit his brakes hard. The driver of the semi stood on his brakes as well. McNulty watched helplessly as the semi’s trailer jack-knifed across the highway, tearing chunks of tread from its tires. A split second later, the wrong-way vehicle plowed nose-first into the massive grille of the semi, crumpling like tin foil and bursting into flames. As the fire engulfed the front of the cab, McNulty could see the driver was slumped over the steering wheel and sprinted toward the semi, yanked the door open and pulled the stunned man out. McNulty guided him well away from the fiery tangle of metal embedded in the semi’s front end. Emergency responders were on the scene in minutes as the CHP directed traffic around the collision. The Palmdale Fire Department dousd the still smoldering wreckage, and EMTs treated the semi’s driver for shock.
After giving his statement to the CHP, McNulty was leaning against his Caddy when he muttered under his breath, “Goddammit! That has to be it!” He quickly dialed Allegra. “I think I know why we haven’t been able to find Dana.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Allegra said patiently. “Why?”
“Because we’ve been coming at this from the wrong direction.”
Two hours after he checked out of the Mojave Motel, McNulty checked back in, telling the confused clerk behind the desk, “The roaches missed me.” Early the next morning, McNulty and his drone camera were back out on the highway, retracing the same steps he’d done the week before. Only this time, instead of flying the drone south over the roadway ahead, he flew it north.
“It’s the only possibility that makes sense,” McNulty insisted to Allegra. “I think Dana somehow got turned around out here and ended up driving the wrong way on the freeway.”
“How could that possibly happen?” Allegra pressed.
“Not sure,” McNulty admitted. “But this highway is pitch black at night, and very few cars are on the road at that hour. I want to check it out.”
So there he was yet again, his drone skimming low over both sides of the divided highway, searching for clues. It was a longshot, McNulty knew, but his longshots often paid off.
“Thought you’d be long gone by now,” Officer Nichols said cordially while walking up to McNulty’s Cadillac. Only this time the patrolman wasn’t in uniform. Or driving his CHP cruiser.
“Me, too. Just can’t get enough of this fresh desert air,” McNulty replied just as a big rig rumbled past, belching diesel fumes and clouds of exhaust. The P.I. noticed that the off-duty cop was wearing a cap with the emblem of a fierce looking scorpion on the front, probably from some semi-pro ball team or other.
“Listen, I heard you were involved in that wrong way traffic accident yesterday. I just wanted to apologize for coming on so badass the other day. Especially after what you did for that truck driver. Not everyone would’ve saved him.”
“Glad I was in the neighborhood,” McNulty said modestly. He pointed his chin at Nichols’ 4 X 4 pick-up truck with a raised chassis and over-sized tires. “Nice custom job.”
“I do some off-roading when I’m not on duty,” Nichols grinned. “Well, I’ll leave you to it then.”
McNulty couldn’t help but wonder what Nichols’ impromptu visit was all about. No cops he ever knew would go out of their way to apologize to someone they’d encountered while on duty. And they certainly wouldn’t waste their off-duty time doing it. McNulty’s gut told him something was off about the guy.
“You haven’t seen the last of him,” McNulty murmured to himself, unaware of just how right his prophecy would be.