Cop turned screenwriter Nick Chapel finds another body and puts his own in danger. 3,036 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I’m riding shotgun in the LAPD department issue Ford Taurus going south on the 405 and trying not to imagine the sources of the stains, tears and burned holes in the fabric around me. The seats are wide and the suspension spongy. My slacks and blazer will have to be laundered and even that may not erase the smell of fried food and cigarettes. I crack the window, but it’s not big enough to air out this kind of stink.
For the longest time Ayers says nothing, focusing on the intricate sequence of lane changes required when traveling through West L.A. and Culver City. He’s a meticulous driver, head on a swivel, checking his mirrors. Perhaps he was in the military, or played ball in college. I sense team sports in his background, but the lanky frame that impressed high school recruiters has gone soft.
“So you and Brandt were a team,” the police detective finally says. “I hear you didn’t suck. A real hard charger.”
“I liked putting the cuffs on bad guys.”
“Hard chargers burn out. That what happen to you?”
I smile at the jab, then explain, “I got a job on a TV show and it stuck. Now I’m a screenwriter.”
“I need you to just remember one thing: you’re not a cop anymore. So who is this mook we’re trying to find?”
“Tibor Mansoorevic. Worked with movie producer Sid Shulman on a project for Sharla Fontaine. Sid has been AWOL for two days now. Funny thing is, the script is about a serial killer who takes parts from every female victim and puts them together to make the perfect woman.”
“Nothing funny about that,” Ayers replies grimly. “How would you do that anyway? Not easy. This guy has been active for six weeks, maybe more. The first parts he took are pretty ripe by now. Even if he’s keeping them in a cooler, the lividity and rigor would be a bitch.”
“Maybe he’s freezing them.”
“Then he’d have to deal with freezer burn and I don’t think he’d like that. Cause he’s a perfectionist,” Ayer says, eyes never leaving the road. “He’s taking these beautiful women and doesn’t leave a mark on the bodies. Not a scratch. Then he takes what he wants. Guy like that isn’t interested in bruising.”
He drives on in silence. Like a good screenplay, Ayers communicates plenty with just a few words.
We arrive at a faux Spanish-Colonial apartment building on a street green with California oaks and giant King palms. Fresh ocean breezes greet us with the salty taste of the Pacific. A group of kids walk by, just back from the beach, towels slung over their shoulders, flip-flops flapping.
We enter the building courtyard and admire the arched passages, sweeping staircases, and burbling fountain decorated with colorful Malibu tile. The place drips with the vibe of old Hollywood. Ayers leaves to find the manager and returns with a set of keys and confirmation that Tibor rents a ground floor unit, though the manager hasn’t seen him in over a week.
“You smell something?” Ayers asks, then uses the key.
Hot waves of thick pungent air hit us like a punch to the lungs as soon as the door cracks open.
“Good Lord,” I yelp pinching my nostrils shut.
Ayers enters, scanning the living room with his gun, then stands at the entry to the bedroom, his face frozen in a pre-vomit grimace. I take in the scene of the crime: Sid’s naked body sprawls over the bed, his midsection a dark mess of blood, organs, and encrusted sheets. Flies swarm. I study his face, darkened with decomp, but still oddly beatific given the circumstances.
“Where’s his…?” I ask, noting the missing piece of Sid’s anatomy.
“The Starlet Stalker always takes a souvenir,” Ayers replies.
We retreat from the scene. Ayers holsters the Beretta and reaches for his radio. As he calls dispatch, I sit by the fountain and breathe deeply, though the stench of decay has already spread. I know the smell will find a way in. It always does. Humans are no longer equipped with the stomach acids needed to kill the bacteria in rotting flesh, so the scent that once signaled mealtime to our scavenger ancestors on the plains of the Serengeti now warns us to stay away. Death is near and must be given a wide berth.
Two officers arrive. Ayers identifies himself and tells them to set up a perimeter. Sid would not have liked such a public death, believing that filmmakers should present a dignified face to the public. His office may be a mess, his movies exploitative, and his personal life a shambles, but the producer always dressed well and impressed upon me the social value of tailored shirts and well-made shoes.
The reality TV Manhunt circus comes to the apartment house, complete with circling helicopters, souvenir vendors, and food trucks. The first news van arrives in time to broadcast live the arrival of my ex-partner, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt, and Manhunt executive producer Denny Roach. Murmurs ripple through the crowd at the sight of these celebrities. Many raise their cell phone cameras high in a strange salute.
Roach enters the apartment courtyard, his face crumpling at the smell. “Oh, bloody hell, that’s a bite on the nose,” the Australian winces.
Brandt and the cameraman hesitate before the door, the scene stopping them in their tracks like a wall of heat from an unseen inferno. I warn, “Jim, this isn’t suitable for the family hour.”
“You’re like a bad penny,” Roach says to me, “always turning up even though Brandt told me and the rest of America you weren’t involved in this case. I’m beginning to doubt that statement and think you don’t like me.”
“I don’t know you,” I reply. “I just know you’re turning murder into a spectator sport.”
“Says the man who has made a handsome living turning murder into a spectator sport.”
“Those are just stories. With you, the bodies are real.”
“You’re right. It’s all real. The bodies, the coppers, the blood. And that’s what really nags you, mate, ‘cause that is something you will never have. The audience knows all the stuff you write — sorry, rewrite — is fake, phony, make-believe. They want real. Now this may sound crazy, but I think you and I should team up. You know the real side of police work and you have the story skills.”
“Thought your show wasn’t scripted.”
“Even reality has to be shaped a bit, eh?” he says. “We let the cops do their thing, and then you help me find the drama in what happens. NBC is begging for a Manhunt spinoff centered on the LAPD Homicide Division, your old stomping grounds. I’m looking for a Co-EP.”
“No thanks, Denny. I’ll stick to features.”
“Features,” he snorts, “How much longer do you think people will get in their cars and go to a movie theater? All that is dying, Nick. All those sound stages, those backlots, they’re all dinosaurs. Like it or not, mate, what I do is the future. You think Manhunt is big? It’s nothing compared to what I got planned: The Murder Channel, a whole network of true crime 24/7. I’m already in talks with Comcast. You could do more than just entertain people. You could do something that matters. That gets people involved. Did you know our 1-800-Manhunt tip line gets over ten thousand calls a day?”
“And not one of them has caught this guy, have they?”
“That’s not the point, mate. The point is ten thousand a day. That’s insane. Think about my offer, Nick.”
Just then Brandt exits the apartment. “So that’s Sid Shulman? You sure? He’s pretty ripe.”
“Yeah, I recognize the hair transplants.”
Denny steps forward, raising his hands, and calling to his cameraman. “We really should be getting this on tape. Nick, you’re spot on where you are. Jim, could you take about two steps forward?”
“You gotta be kidding me,” I say. “Jim, you really put up with this?”
“Just let him do his thing,” Brandt replies. “Ayers says you think Sharla Fontaine’s killing was a copycat.”
I nod and start to reply when the cameraman pans toward me, the zoom lens zooming in. Denny waves behind him, pointing toward Brandt.
“Don’t look at the camera,” Denny whispers. “Just look at Brandt.”
“It’s a theory,” I say to Brandt, trying to ignore the camera. “Sid was working on a project based on the Starlet Stalker. Maybe Sharla Fontaine found out and blackmailed Sid so he kills her,” I go on. “Or maybe he paid Tibor to kill her. Or maybe Tibor does it on his own, Sid learns about it, and Tibor kills Sid. Maybe Sid’s wife is involved. I don’t know, Jim, but you need to separate yourself from this show. Whatever Sid was involved in, it’s related directly to the spotlight Manhunt has put on the Starlet Stalker investigation.”
“Okay, let’s cut,” Denny says, tapping the cameraman.
“You think it’s just a coincidence he kills once a week?” I go on. “You think he isn’t checking the ratings? Manhunt is not just a sideshow to the investigation. It’s driving things. You have to stop it, Jim.”
“Now hold on just a minute,” Denny says.
“Fuck off,” I reply. “Did you get that, or do you need a retake?”
On the way home, I think of Sid and how there will never be a retrospective for him at the Cinemateque or the American Film Institute. No one will remember his films but he didn’t make them to be remembered. He made them because it was fun. Not a bad life, even if it all came to an end with his guts spilling from his split belly. Part of me wants to shed a tear, but such tender emotion seems inappropriate for a producer best known for slasher flicks and women-in-prison soft porn.
A tinkle of glass lands on the passenger seat. Curious, I bend over and pick up a shard when the second bullet rips through the headrest, spraying me with foam. The third bullet sprays more foam and glass. There’s no bang, just a silenced pop. The shooter is using a silencer. I throw the car into reverse. It’s a sloppy move but I’m driving blind. I crank the wheel counter-clockwise, aiming the car at the popping sound. The rear bumper crunches into something. A man woofs and groans in pain. The passenger door slams into the big cement column by the elevators. I throw the car into drive, but it’s wedged tight.
When I shoulder the door open, something hits me. The jolting pain runs from my jaw to my left eye. Oil-stained concrete rises up to meet my face, or have I fallen? Large heavy footsteps approach. A boot kicks me. Ribs crack. I roll over, gasping, and get my first clear look at Tibor Mansoorevic. He’s big, taller than his photographs indicate. His head is enormous, his meaty forearms and large hands covered in dark hair.
“This how you killed Sharla Fontaine?” I gasp.
“I no kill Sharla Fontaine. Starlet Stalker kill her,” he sneers. “Just like he kill you.”
“The Starlet Stalker uses drugs and a knife. You better get your MO straight.”
“Then drugs and knife it is.”
He pulls from his pocket a vial of liquid and a dirty handkerchief. He’s on me in two paces, stepping on my blazer and pinning me to the pavement. He kneels over me and shakes liquid onto the cloth. I struggle and he punches my nose. Blood spurts.
From a leather sheath on his belt, he draws forth a mean-looking knife. He clamps the blade in his mouth, then holds the drug-soaked cloth over my face. I claw at his hands, no match for their size and strength. Flash frames of an eyeless Sharla Fontaine and disemboweled Sid Shulman dart through my skull. The garage grows dark.
My stomach grumbles. I haven’t had lunch yet — a strange thought to have as I’m about to be gutted by a copycat killer. The script pages for Paramount will have to wait. The studio will be on the phone to another script doctor by the end of the day. My murder will rate an article on the L.A. Times website and will be only the second time most readers have ever heard of me, following on the heels of my network debut on the Manhunt show.
Tibor takes the knife from his mouth. Darkness descends around me, and a bright portal of light opens on my afterlife. A form emerges from the blinding glow and I assume this spectral angel means the big man upstairs has forgiven me for those twins in Vegas. A high-pitched primal yell jars me alert, and Tibor turns in time to catch a dark boot with his meaty face. He sprawls off me, the knife clattering across the concrete. I shake the cloth from my face and gasp for air. The shadowy figure whip-kicks again, but Tibor rolls away and rises to his feet. He throws a roundhouse blow and connects, sending the attacker reeling. I watch the Croatian giant and this nimble opponent trade blows, their shadows flittering over me.
A swift kick to the leg has Tibor bleating like a gored moose. He drops to one knee. The attacker is now a blur of fists and feet, delivering blows to Tibor’s windpipe and solar plexus. The big Croat grunts and clutches wildly with desperate hands, grasping nothing but air. A final coil-spring whip-kick to the head puts Tibor down. He falls with a meaty splat, his unconscious eyes staring right at me.
The last words I hear as darkness falls are: “Nick, you okay?”
I notice the acupuncture needles. They trace up my naked torso like an army of Lilliputian spears, sticking out of my hands, wrists, arms, and marching across the sweat-matted hair on my chest. My assistant Lee Chang appears behind an old man.
“Nick, my grandfather says you must lie still,” Lee says. “You took a helluva beat down.”
“So you make me a human pin-cushion?” I croak.
“Grampa was a doctor in Shanghai. The acupuncture will make you better, and so will this. Drink.”
He puts a cup to my lips and I choke down a few gulps.
“I saw you on the security cameras,” Lee explains. “Thought about calling the cops, but realized you’d be dead by the time they got here. So I got busy.”
He flourishes his arms in a graceful combination of martial arts moves. Grampa beams with pride.
“It’s Krav Maga. An Israeli girl I dated got me into it. I’m getting my green belt in a couple months.”
“Why aren’t the cops here?”
“I figure you’d want to question this guy yourself first.”
“Get these pins outta me.”
It takes Grandpa ten minutes to remove the acupuncture needles. By the time we enter the kitchen, the sour tea has kicked in and my head is clear enough to know that my nose and a few ribs are broken. The stainless steel door of the large freezer shakes as Tibor pounds on it from within.
“Hey, asshole,” I yell at the door, “you keep that up I’m gonna leave you in there all night, then I’ll toss your corpse out the window and watch it shatter over Wilshire Boulevard.”
“You… get … me out,” comes the muffled reply.
“Not until I get a few answers.”
“Fuck… you. I… tell you… nothing.”
“You tell me everything or your kids will have a popsicle for a father. But I imagine you’re used to that kind of cold, growing up in the Balkans, all that frozen wind coming down from Poland every winter. That why you settle in L.A.? Did reruns of Baywatch sell you on the California dream? Well, Tibor?”
“Lee, there’s a pair of handcuffs in the top drawer of my nightstand. Go get them.”
I bang on the freezer door, but there is no response. Lee returns and I open the freezer. The blue and shivering Croat falls out, his shirt sparkling with sweaty permafrost. He kicks at us, but I grab a wrist and cuff it to the metal leg of the six-burner Bertazzoni range. Tibor tugs at the restraint, wincing in pain.
“Why’d you kill Sharla Fontaine?” I ask.
“You no… police.”
“Yeah, I no police. The LAPD have rules about questioning people. I don’t. You give me answers, or it’s back in the deep freeze.”
Tibor smiles. “All through the war I give up nothing,” he says, “You think I talk now?”
“So you saw a lot of action, huh? That Milosevic was no picnic for you Croatians. Drove him out of your homeland. Big heroes until the U.N. found all the bodies. The mass graves. The Serbian women and children you executed. Not quite so heroic anymore.”
Something over my shoulder catches Tibor’s attention.
“Nick,” Megan yells, bounding in, “I’ve got the most fantastic… Oh Jeez.” She takes in the strange tableau of a largeh airy man hand-cuffed to the stove, and my own beat-up face. “I’ll wait outside,” she stammers.
I turn back to Tibor. “Answer one question. If Sid had you kill Sharla Fontaine, why did you kill Sid?”
He stares at me with cold dull eyes that had undoubtedly seen more human carnage than I can imagine. His thick unibrow quivers just a millimeter, telling me all I need to know. His confusion is genuine.
“Lee, call Jim Brandt.” I stagger out of the kitchen, the effect of Grandpa’s needles and tea wearing thin. Megan helps me to the couch where I sit — ribs aching, nose throbbing — and close my eyes.
“What happened?” asks the teenaged daughter of my college roommate. “Should I call a doctor?”
“We’ll head over to UCLA Medical Center after the police get here.”
“Who is that man?” she nods toward the kitchen. “Is that the Starlet Stalker?”
“He’s a killer, but not the Stalker.”
“So it’s not over?” she asks.
“It is for me,” I reply, hoping I’m right.