Former LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel follows a lead in the serial murder case. 2,096 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
There is a reason I specialize in rewriting crime stories. It’s not just the compelling nature of murder, and the ease of breaking a second act that is propelled by the search for a criminal. It’s the simple motivation that drives the hero to his or her goal. No boring exposition is needed to explain why a police officer or private investigator endures trials and hardships to solve the crime and catch the villain. It’s simply what they do, and who they are. It defines them.
It’s the detective who doesn’t pursue the killer that requires explanation. He knows the criminal is out there somewhere. The same sun beats down on him. He wears sunglasses to cut the glare, just like I am, and maybe even a hat to protect his sensitive scalp. The same hot wind blowing in from the desert burns his lungs. I drive east, sketching out the backstory of a man I’ve never met.
He works in show business, or used to, but the reality never matched his dreams. That made him angry, enough to kill, but he’s no wild man ranting on Hollywood Boulevard about what might have been. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Intelligent. He has a plan and a place to do his work that must be private, where no one would notice his comings and goings, or the bodies he carries.
Driving through Beverly Hills, I wonder if he is shopping at this very moment. Maybe he is sipping a cappuccino at one of the coffee shops on Robertson, or eating lunch at the Beverly Center. But then he is probably more accustomed to brown-bagged lunches and black coffee from a thermos than hipster meetings at The Ivy. I settle into his shoes, and feel the weight of the implements he uses to cut his victims apart. I should be angry with my ex-partner, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt for introducing me to this character, but only feel an odd gratitude. Finding Sid Shulman is the least I can do.
I try the last number I have for him. A recorded voice offers to connect me to Shulman Pictures, Shulman Television, or Shulman Digital Entertainment. None of them leads to a real human being. Three more calls to sources at the Writers Guild results in an address in Van Nuys. I fire up the Porsche and begin the long trek west to the 405 Freeway and north into the sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. At a nameless warehouse just off Havenhurst, I park in a stall reserved for Sid Shulman, President, Shulman Enterprises.
The reception area is furnished with a tattered couch and mismatched chairs. On the desk rests a nameplate that reads, “Hillary Greenberg, Development Executive.” Posters of Sid’s films line the walls, with titles like Cell Phone Killer, Amazon Virgins, and Psych Ward. I quietly open the door to the inner office revealing the shapely legs and rump of a woman bent over a large desk.
I clear my throat. "I’m looking for Sid."
The woman stands. Hillary Greenberg is petite with raven black hair and deep brown eyes. “I haven’t seen him since Monday. Who are you?”
“Nick Chapel. A screenwriter.”
She points to the poster of a film I had doctored years ago. “You wrote Creature Of Habit.”
“I rewrote it.”
“God, I loved that film. It’s the first movie that made me realize someone writes these things.”
“Thanks. How about Sid? And would you know anything about the actress Sharla Fontaine?”
“Sid knows a lot of actresses.”
“She was in his Psych Ward.”
“Oh, her,” Hillary says. “The nurse. She used to come by a lot. Sid was developing a project for her. I haven’t seen her in a couple weeks though.”
“And you never will again. She was killed yesterday.”
“Oh my God,” she exclaims a bit too loudly. “Sid was working on this project with a writer and was going to see him. Tibor Mansoorevic. Sid hasn’t called in.”
Returning to the parking lot, I knew I should be home working my way through a Reuben from Jerry’s Deli and the second act of the Paramount film. I punch Sid’s Bel Air address into the Cayenne’s navigation system. Finally a bit of luck: it’s on the way back to my home in Westwood.
The third house on the right is a pumped-up Brady Bunch ranch with lots of John Denver woodwork, glass, and brick veneer. I park by a silver Audi A6. A Latina in a grey maid’s uniform answers the door promptly and leads me to the back pool where a pregnant woman reclines on a chaise.
“I’m looking for Sid.”
“Join the fucking club. You a cop?”
“You two having trouble?”
“We had a big fight yesterday morning and he took the Jag. Haven’t seen him since.”
“Fight about what?”
“You know Sid well? Some direct-to-video whore wannabe. What is it with you men and new toys? Can’t you ever be happy with the toys you already have?”
“This whore wannabe have a name?”
“Probably,” she replies. “He didn’t admit anything, but that murder down in Brentwood yesterday was all over the news and he was acting so strangely that I knew he was doing her. He said he was just upset because her murder might queer the project he was developing with that big ugly gorilla, Tibor. God, I’ve never seen such hair on a man. We’re talking fur. And scars all over, like he’d been whipped.”
“The project they were working on, what was it called?”
“Lady Parts. Nice, huh? Sid came up with that title. Thought it was so provocative. He lined up a financier and swears it will be an A-list film and finally put him on the map.”
“Well, thank you for helping,” I say, standing. “I won’t take up any more of your time.”
I call Brandt and tell him that instead of finding one simple answer — the whereabouts of Sid Shulman — I’ve only turned up more questions. He assures me they are very interesting questions and thanks me for my help, then invites me over for dinner “once this whole thing is over.” Listening to the birds and the leaf blowers, I wonder how many more young women will die before I’m sitting at Brandt’s table enjoying pot roast, creamed potatoes and asparagus.
Morning sun splashes the Santa Monica hills in watercolor veils of gold and purple. I crack my dining room window, and cool ocean breezes carry in the sweet scent of blooming citrus. It’s all so perfect, but I can’t enjoy it. The Starlet Stalker has killed again and news of his latest victim crawls across the news feed on the big screen. I glance to the phone, but know Brandt is too busy with the crime scene to take my call. Besides, he knows all too well that this killing breaks the usual pattern of one body each week, and raises more questions about the murder of Sharla Fontaine.
My assistant Lee Chang enters with a bowl of oatmeal, fruit, orange juice, and a copy of Lady Parts after he greased a palm in the WGA registration office to obtain the latest opus of Tibor Mansoorevic.
But the log line makes my face go slack. I read it over again, just to make sure I read it correctly. I call Brandt. “I have a new lead for you on Sid Shulman.”
“I’m up to my neck in new leads.”
“Don’t tell me, it wasn’t breasts or heads this time. Something different. Maybe legs.”
There’s a moment of silence on the line. “I can see you at the precinct in a half hour,” Brandt finally says.
“I’ll be there in twenty.”
The West L.A. Precinct hums with activity. Members of the Starlet Stalker Task Force, running on coffee and adrenalin after a long night, work the phones, study a big a map of the murder sites, and post information about the latest victim on bulletin boards. A crew from the Reality TV show Manhunt is documenting every move as executive producer Denny Roach blocks compositions in the air with his hands.
“So he struck again,” I say to a tall African-American detective who introduces himself as Ayers — just Ayers, nothing more. Judging from the loose fit of his Suit Warehouse blazer, and the stain on his Macy’s tie, I assume he doesn’t rate much screen time on the Manhunt show. “But it’s only been two days since Sharla Fontaine. There’s usually a week between victims.”
“Yeah, he’s cooling off faster, so the heat is on,” Ayers adds. “The Mayor’s office. The Sheriff’s Department. Hell, the head of Disneyland is pissed. All these bodies are bad for tourism.” Ayers then returns to the bullpen and a desk covered with tilting stacks of files, snack wrappers, and coffee cups.
Brandt calls me into his office. I enter and close the door. “Rebecca Dobbs, volleyball player,” he says, handing me a publicity photo of the leggy athletic warrior. “She won a bronze medal at the London Olympics. Did some modeling. One of those community gardeners down in Mar Vista found her dumped in his pea patch. How’d you know about the legs?”
I set the Lady Parts screenplay on his desk. “This is the project Sid Shulman was working on for Sharla Fontaine. Check out the logline. ‘A serial killer constructs the perfect woman from the parts of his victims.’ Sound familiar? You still have that file of press clippings on the victims?”
He hands me the file. I spread the clippings on his desk. “You’re right about Mandy Monroe’s wounds being clumsy. He botched the job, so he needed another set of breasts. With the second victim, Victoria Foster, his work is precise and neat. Now look at her publicity photos. What’s the common denominator between them?”
In every photo, the camera angle, lighting, and poses, all draw the eye to the remarkable cantilever of the woman’s bosom. Brandt phrases it more crudely: “Her tits.”
“Exactly. Foster was known primarily for one nude scene in one film. So is it just coincidence the Starlet Stalker takes her breasts? Now consider the other victims. He took their heads. Why would someone making the perfect woman need two heads? But look again. Taylor was decapitated mid-neck, but Oudry at the shoulder. Now look at their press photos .” I spread out the magazine glamour shots, fashion spreads, and advertisements featuring Cary Ann Taylor and Michele Oudry. Most of the photos are close-ups, featuring their high cheekbones and flawless skin.
“No tits,” Brandt says. “Just their faces.”
“They’re both flat-chested. Their bodies aren’t their strongest asset, but their faces? Those cheekbones, that hair, that skin? Oudry is pretty, but not as pretty as Taylor. And her press shots from her Medici series feature all those high-collared costumes. That regal bearing.”
“He was after her neck, not her head.”
“Look at the pictures of your volleyball player. They’re all about her legs. Volleyball players have crazy long legs.”
Brandt rubbed his face. He hadn’t shaved recently. “Where do we find this writer Tibor Mansoorevic?”
“The only address I’ve got for him is a place down in San Pedro.”
“Take Ayers and go check it out.
“Jim, I’m a civilian, remember? I’m not a cop anymore.”
“C’mon, you can find this guy and talk to him one writer to another.”
Ayers opens the office door wide in answer to Brandt who orders: “Take Nick and try to find this suspect down in the Pedro. Might be connected to Fontaine.”
“This some kind of ride along?” Ayers asks. “For some kind of movie?”
Brandt nods. “Yes it’s a ride along for a movie Nick is writing, the sordid tale of a serial killer creating the ideal woman from the parts of his victims. Coming soon to a multiplex near you.”
Ayers motions for me to follow him, but I hang back a moment. “Jim, you need to look hard at the first victim, Mandy Monroe. The other victims were targeted and stalked. He wanted specific parts. But Monroe was sloppy, spur of the moment. I think he knew her. Maybe a fan. Someone she pissed off. And the Starlet Stalker still needs arms and a torso. He’ll target tall fashion models, athletes, swimmers —anyone with broad shoulders and a wide reach. One more thing: check large cold rooms, the walk-in kind, some place big enough for a table where he can… sew the parts together.”