Hollywood P.I. McNulty pieces together the puzzle surrounding the missing TV showrunner. 2,160 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
McNulty was finishing a fourteen-hour day piecing together all the images related to the year-long disappearance of TV showrunner Dana Delongpre. The images from his iPhone. The surveillance video from the convenience store where she’d last been seen. And all the photos posted by CHP Officer and wannabe screenwriter Chet Nichols on his Facebook and Instagram pages expertly hacked courtesy of McNulty’s Nerd Ninja team.
Blurry-eyed from hours of frame by frame studying on his notebook screen, McNulty leaned back in his chair and knocked back the last mouthful of Glenlivet, his mind still sharp and focused. And now he was damn sure he knew what had happened to Dana. And it wasn’t murder at the hands of her husband.
“Wanda!” the Hollywood P.I. barked into the office intercom. “Get me Shamrock!”
‘Shamrock” was the code name for Killian Cleary, a former IRA soldier and roguish Irish mercenary who’d seen action as a private CIA contractor in many of the world’s hotspots. A dead shot and skilled martial arts expert, Killian Cleary was McNulty’s secret go-to guy whenever back-up was needed on an investigation.
“Got one, boyo?” Shamrock laughed, recognizing the number on the burner phone McNulty used exclusively to contact him.
“It could get sticky,” McNulty admitted.
“Where and when?” Shamrock asked.
“Tonight,” McNulty replied. “Bring the beast.” That was another coded reference for Shamrock’s armored Hummer which he’d outfitted with an impressive array of firepower.
As the beast sped northeast through the darkness toward the high desert, McNulty outlined his findings thus far. “Dana’s banged-up Range Rover indicated that the heavily dented left rear quarter panel and the busted left rear tail light could have been caused by—“
“—a pit maneuver,” Shamrock interjected, referring to a ramming tactic which law enforcement use during pursuits. “So you figure she was chased?”
McNulty nodded: “And she turned off her headlights to avoid being seen. When Nichols pitted her, she spun around and started driving the wrong way.”
“But what makes you think it was this cop?”
“A couple of things,” McNulty replied. “First, he lied when I asked him if he’d ever seen Dana before. But he’d posted pictures on Facebook and Instagram showing the two of them together when he moonlighted as security on three of her productions.”
He paused to give Shamrock a moment to digest this.
“Then there’s the surveillance video from the convenience store.” McNulty recounted how it captured a muscular man in a red ball cap entering the store ten minutes before Dana arrived. A few minutes later, she pulled up to the pumps and started to gas up. Then Dana entered the store and filled a large cup of coffee to go. At the same time, the man paid for his beer and drove off. Moments later, Dana did the same. “So she didn’t see him,” McNulty said. “But he damn sure saw her.”
“Did you get a look to ID him?” Shamrock probed.
“Not exactly,” McNulty admitted. “But there was a logo on his ball cap. After I enlarged it, I saw it was for the Mojave Scorpions, a semi-pro football team. I’d seen him wearing it before. And he had the same tricked-out pickup as in the surveillance video.”
“Then let’s go get this son-of-a-bitch!” Shamrock bellowed, pressing down hard on the Hummer’s gas pedal.
McNulty’s eyes were locked on his laptop screen while Shamrock’s night vision goggles helped him easily navigate the dark dirt track that cut deep into the surrounding desert.
“We good?” Shamrock asked.
“Five by,” McNulty replied.
A camera drone outfitted with a night vision lens was observing the green-tinted image of an off-road pickup truck. Shamrock’s Hummer was a half-mile behind, its headlights off and following at a safe unseen distance. On the drive out, McNulty had called the Palmdale CHP station and was told Nichols’ shift would end at midnight.
“Doesn’t leave us much time,” Shamrock noted.
“It’ll take him another hour to write up his reports,” the P.I. said.
McNulty was right. When Nichols finally emerged from the CHP station, they followed him onto a dirt road that stretched far into a stark landscape of sand, scrub and cactus. Finally, the pickup arrived at a modest ranch house. McNulty quickly maneuvered the drone to a higher altitude to keep Nichols from hearing the whirring propellers and provide a wider shot of the area.
“There’s a detached garage and a shed,” McNulty reported. “And something that looks like a dumpster.”
“How do you want to do this?” Shamrock asked.
“I’ll do a probe,” McNulty replied. “Any trouble, you do that thing that you do so well.”
They watched Nichols park and disappear inside the home. Then the two men separated, each advancing through the darkness toward the house and wearing night vision goggles. Nichols was in the kitchen preparing a late night meal. McNulty turned his gaze to the dumpster and realized it wasn’t a dumpster at all. It was a metal cargo container. A chill went up McNulty’s spine.
Easy, McNulty, his inner voice whispered, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Years earlier, as a railroad cop, he’d been called to a siding where a foul odor was emanating from a locked box car. Inside was a carload of rotting human corpses; forty two men, women and children, all illegal immigrants, locked inside by human traffickers and apparently forgotten. Even years after, he still carried within him the sight and stench of that terrible discovery.
McNulty sprinted toward the cargo container and found its metal entrance padlocked. He reached for his pick, opened the lock and slid the metal bolt to the side. Holding his breath, he slowly inched ajar one of the two-sided doors.
Suddenly, a blinding bright light exploded from inside, searing McNulty’s irises. He reflexively tore the night vision goggles from his head and tottered backwards. “Fuck!” He realized instantly that a motion sensor inside the container had triggered the light.
“Is that you, Chet?” asked a woman’s voice. “What time is it?”
When McNulty’s eyesight returned to normal, he gasped. Dana Delongpre, thin and pale, was sitting up on a single twin bed, fearfully clutching a tattered blanket to her chest. As she shifted her body, a chain rattled and McNulty saw that her left ankle was shackled to a U-clamp welded to the metal floor of the container.
“It’s okay,” McNulty said, his voice low. “I’m here to help you.”
He wasted no time using his lock pick on her ankle shackle.
“How did you find me?” she asked, her voice quivering.
“Yeah asshole!” shouted Nichols who was blocking the open door. “How did you find her?” He had a shotgun pointed at McNulty.
“Long story,” the P.I. said evenly. “Only you’ll never hear it.”
“That’s true,,” Nichols said, raising his weapon to fire. "Dead men tell no tales."
McNulty and Dana didn’t hear the shot until seconds after Nichols’ head exploded into a thick geyser of bone, flesh and brain matter. Nichols didn’t hear it at all. But once again Shamrock and his sniper rifle had done that thing that they do so well.
With the rescue of Dana Delongpre, McNulty was once again in the media spotlight, as well as the subject of an L.A. County Sherriff’s probe. Tasked with looking into the killing of CHP Officer Nichols, the authorities ultimately concluded that his death was justified, substantiated by the fact that Nichols’ shotgun had been fired into the cargo container. Neither Dana nor McNulty let on that the P.I. had shot the weapon and returned it to Nichols’ dead hands
“I’keeping your ass out of jail,” McNulty had explained aththe time to Shamrock. “They can’t say it wasn’t justified if it looks like he fired first.” Dana was so grateful about being rescued that she eagerly agreed to verify McNulty’s version of the shooting.
“I owe you my life,” she told him simply.
“All I did was find you,” McNulty reminded. “You saved your own life.”
And, indeed, she had. When she was well enough, Dana revealed the harrowing details of her disappearance and captivity. It was pretty much as McNulty had deduced.
After leaving the convenience store, Dana realized the pickup truck was following her. She sped up, turned off her headlights and searched for a place to get off the highway. She panicked when the pickup, its headlights blazing, bumped her back end. She lost control and her Range Rover spun onto the center median. When she saw the truck turn around, she drove the wrong way in the southbound lanes. But Nichols kept side swiping her until he ran her onto the center median. When she tried to open her door to run, the sideswiping had jammed it shut. By the time she crawled over to the passenger side, Nichols was already there. She recognized him immediately. But before she could scream, Nichols jolted her unconscious with a taser. “When I came to, I was chained up in that cargo container,” Dana explained. “He told me that no one would ever find me and that he’d sunk my car in the aqueduct.” After a moment, she added: “He also told me I wasn’t the first.”
It was tragically true. With Dana’s successful rescue, teams of crime scene investigators swarmed Nichols’ ranch house and unearthed the shallow graves of nineteen women, all of whom had vanished without a trace during the eight years Nichols had patrolled that lonely stretch of highway.
But the most remarkable aspect of Dana’s disappearance was how she had managed to survive for nearly a year.
As Dana told it, her first weeks of captivity were a nightmare of repeated rapes and beatings by the officer who’d worked security for her shows. “He told me it was payback for all the times I’d promised to read his spec scripts, but didn’t.”
Finally, she had the idea to offer to teach hom how to write for movies and TV. Nichols said he’d like that. “But if you’re bullshitting me,” he assured her, “I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
In the weeks and months that followed, a bizarre collaboration unfolded. Soon the seeds for The Starfire Run took root. Under Dana’s tutelage, they wrote, re-wrote and honed an outline, which evolved into a lengthy and frequently rewritten treatment. “I was giving him a master class in screenwriting,” Dana admitted. “I began to think about how I could prolong it. So I kept suggesting new scenes and characters and story arcs, believing the more pages we added, the more likely I might get out alive.”
McNulty likened her to a modern day Scheherazade, the legendary storyteller whose tales so enthralled a cruel king he couldn’t execute her. The name stuck. And from that moment on Dana Delongpre became known as the Hollywood Scheherazade.
“I like that,” Allegra said, signaling the bartender to bring two more. “It’s a good title for a movie.”
McNulty grinned. “They’re already shooting it for Lifetime.”
“She’s a gutsy lady,” Allegra said. “She used his Hollywood dreams against him.”
“Hollywood dreams are like a concrete mirage,” McNulty told her. “Just when you think they’re within reach, they shatter against a solid wall of disappointment and rejection.”
“Hooray for Hollywood,” Allegra snickered. “At least Dana survived, her husband’s a free man again, and a psycho killer cop is dead.”
“And that’s not even the best part,” McNulty smiled. “Dana sold the The Starfire Run screenplay to Warner Bros. for $2.5 million and a healthy piece of the back end. After what she went through, she deserves it. But that’s still not the best part,” McNulty noted smugly. “She got sole ‘written by’ credit.”
“Now that’s what I call a happy Hollywood ending,” Allegra said.
McNulty couldn’t have agreed more.