Screenwriter Nick Chapel is back on the LAPD beat looking for a serial killer. 1,894 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt spreads the files on the table. “Fair warning: these are pretty disturbing.”
“Worse than eyeballs?”
“Worse than eyeballs. The Starlet Stalker takes different body parts every time. We’re keeping the specifics out of the press. They know disfigurement is part of the MO, but not the details of what he’s taking. The first victim, Mandy Monroe, played the oldest daughter on the sitcom Daddy’s Home. She was found five weeks ago in a dumpster in back of a Pizza Hut on Pico Boulevard with her breasts cut off.”
Brandt slides the file across the desk to me. I brace myself, then open it, revealing photos of Monroe’s savaged torso. She lies naked in a tangle of garbage, her face frozen in a beatific gaze, a purse and its contents scattered around her crudely slashed torso. Where her breasts should be, eye-shaped holes reveal red musculature and white ribs. For a moment, it’s difficult to process the discrepancy between her external beauty and internal meat. I close the file.
“I flagged the case, but pegged it as a one-off,” Brandt says. “Figured some angry boyfriend or crazy fan, but I was wrong. The second victim, Victoria Foster, was in the teen comedy Senior Year. She got a lot of press from her nude scene. Her body was found in a half-pipe in a Venice skateboard park. Again the breasts.”
“Your guy likes the publicity,” I begin. “This town is full of hot young women, but he goes after the ‘it’ girls, the ones with heat on their careers. He makes no effort to hide the bodies. He wants you to find them. Leaves their purses to help you identify them. And he keeps killing even after you put him on national television. Talk about your ego strokes. This gives him something he’s missing in life, a feeling of importance, that his existence has meaning. I’m sure your profiler has told you he’s probably single, a loner, maybe the victim of abuse.”
Brandt slides another file across the table. This victim had been folded into a fetal position in the concrete channel, her face resting upon one knee, an expression of ethereal calm conflicting with the wounds on her chest. Her buttocks and legs are blue with livor mortis. The contents of an expensive handbag are dumped beside her, including a smashed phone. I shake my head, but force myself to study each image in detail. I open the Monroe file again and compare photos. The cuts on Monroe are jagged and sloppy, the work of nervous hands using a dull blade. Foster’s wounds are neat and clean.
“He’s getting better,” I note. “The cuts are cleaner. He’s using a sharper knife.”
“The M.E. suspects some kind of shears.”
“But nothing sexual?”
“No, he hasn’t touched their privates. No sign of assault. No semen or DNA.”
“Maybe the killer’s impotent? Taking the breasts becomes the sex act. The knife is his phallus.”
“You sound like our FBI profiler,” Brandt smiles grimly, then hands me another file. “This one’s even worse. Cary Ann Taylor, star of HBO’s The Medicis. He took her head. Her body was found on the old rail line behind the Bergamont Station in Santa Monica.”
I steel myself, then open the file, instantly wishing I hadn’t. The woman’s headless body lies in the weeds across two rusted train tracks. The body is naked, the only means of identification being the tattoo on her shoulder and the scattered contents of a rhinestone clutch.
“Jesus,” I say. “It’s one thing to take breasts, but taking a head… That’s not about sex. It’s about rage, humiliation, trophy-taking. You sure it’s the same guy?”
“Yes. All the victims have the anesthetic isoflurane in their system.”
“The Michael Jackson drug?”
“Yes, it’s nicknamed the milk of amnesia. It’s a surgical anesthetic, though Jackson used it as a sleep aide and it worked so well he never woke up again.”
“That explains the serene look on their faces,” I say. “He knocks them out with isoflurane, kills them with propofol, cuts them apart, then dumps them.”
“Along with their purse,” Brandt says. “This next one is the worst of them. She was found at the Chateau Marmont.”
The fourth file is labeled Michele Oudry, a rising star in France after the international success of her film, Le Vierge Du Avignon, about a young girl’s sexual awakening. She went on to high-profile parts as a sexually insatiable spy in the last James Bond film, and a sexually insatiable Joan of Arc in Showtime’s production of Joan. Crime scene photos show a headless body and the contents of a Prada bag hidden beneath overgrown bushes.
A person can carry only so many grotesque images in their head, and here was one I’d bear until death or Alzheimer’s dissolved it from my brain. Women spend fortunes improving their exterior beauty, but never give their innards a second thought. I wonder what Michele Oudry would think about the appearance of her savaged shoulder musculature and pearly white collar-bones. I push the files back and stand up, hoping some physical distance from the photos will separate me from the evil they document. It didn’t help. The damage was done.
“This is why I said no before,” I finally say. “Now I’m involved. Now I’ve got this horror show in my head. You knew this would happen.”
“I’m sorry,” Brandt replies. “I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t desperate for something… anything… to shake this case up.”
He sits and rubs his forehead. He’s not interested in reviewing the investigative steps he’s already taken. He’s run over those decisions so many times they’ve left deep aching ruts in his mind. He wants a fresh perspective. There is a tag-team quality to any partnership, and I have been tagged. It’s my turn to pace.
“He didn’t go from zero to sixty. He worked his way up to this. You’ve checked juvenile records?”
“Yes, for pyros, animal killers, pet torturers,” Brandt says. “Thought we had a lead on a punk who poisoned neighborhood pets with cyanide-laced treats, but he had an alibi. This time. He’s just another time bomb waiting to blow.”
I set a photo of Cary Ann Taylor’s body beside one of Oudry’s. “Look at the wounds. How careful they are. Have you checked for people with surgical training? Could be an army medic, someone just back from Iraq or Afghanistan? Plenty of time bombs walking around now thanks to those wars.”
“We’re working that angle, but nothing so far.”
“What about taxidermy?”
“Working that too,” Brandt says. “Those guys, by the way, are really sensitive. Taxidermists get hassled every time there’s a case involving body parts.”
“Serves them right. That’s a messed-up hobby, keeping stuffed animals on your wall. What are we, Vikings?”
“It’s a free country.”
I continue, fired up. “Twice he takes breasts. Twice heads. Then eyes. He’s meticulous. That takes time. He needs privacy. A place to work. He keeps the parts somewhere—a freezer, meat locker, that sort of thing.”
“You have any idea how many walk-in freezers there are in Los Angeles?”
“How are they disappearing?” I ask. “These starlets have agents, managers, and publicists looking out for them.”
“But they have no set routine,” Brandt says. “You know the type. Actors aren’t going to school or punching a clock Monday through Friday. It was three days before Taylor missed a meeting and her people started looking for her. Foster’s people didn’t even know she was missing until we found her body.”
“Did they have anything else in common?”
“Other than being hot young actresses?”
“Other than that.”
“They had each landed a big part just before they went missing.”
Brandt pulls out a file of magazine clippings and website print-outs, each announcing the latest casting news for each victim. Taylor was set to play the lead in an Columbia’s R-rated version of Romeo And Juliet. Foster had been cast as a robot femme-fatale in Universal’s sci-fi remake of Double Indemnity. Oudry was in town to begin work on her first romantic comedy, Sister Of The Bride, and Monroe had earned the lead in Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella.
“You think there’s a connection between the parts?” I ask, looking through the clippings. “Maybe a crazy casting director or some pissed-off, also-ran actress?”
“That would be Sharla Fontaine,” Brandt replies. “She was up for each one of those roles, but lost out each time. Thought we had some traction on her boyfriend who has a record, but it didn’t pan out. He alibi’d. We’re back to square one.”
Sitting across from him, I stare at nothing in particular for a moment, just thinking. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Jim,” I finally say. “You seem to be making all the logical moves. I can’t think of anything you don’t already know. This joker is operating on a twisted set of priorities that have nothing to do with the accepted norms of society, but he’s a loner and avoids people, so there is no one to tell him how screwed up he is. If he works at all, he has a solitary job with little day-to-day interaction with other people who might burst his bubble. But this much is obvious: he feeds on publicity. He wants to be famous.”
Brandt nods quietly. I shuffle through the photos and press clippings of each victim. Brandt’s team had done its research. There are Red Carpet photos, pictorial spreads in Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue, nearly-nude features from Maxim, and notices from the showbiz trades. I spread them across the table, filling its surface, then move them around. I tap a finger on a headshot of Sharla Fontaine and the few press clippings Brandt’s team had found on her.
“This all you have on Fontaine?” I ask.
“Yeah, we’re still digging up clippings on her.”
“Maybe he’s lowering his sights. She isn’t in the same league as the others. And the MO doesn’t match. The others were dumped. She’s found in her apartment.”
“Yes, that is odd, but we found traces of isoflurane and propofol in her system just like the others.”
“But she didn’t have the same public profile. How did she get on his radar?”
“We only found one big interview with her, a small horror-movie magazine,” Brandt says. “We’ve checked out all two hundred subscribers in Los Angeles.”
He pushes a copy of Fright Fest magazine to me. The cover features Sharla, clad in bra and panties, fleeing a psycho killer down a hospital corridor. It’s the sort of image that satisfied the lust of teenage boys before the advent of free internet porn. I note a name I hadn’t seen in months, maybe years.
“Sid Shulman,” I murmur.
“The slasher master,” I reply. “That’s what they call him. Or that’s what he calls himself. He’s a small-time producer, Roger Corman type, mostly direct-to-DVD horror movies. I did some work for him years ago when I was just getting started.”
“We think he’s the ‘SS’ found in Fontaine’s iPad calendar, but could only turn up an answering service and a P.O. Box. Know where we can find him?”
“No, but I know who might. I’ll see what I can find out.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Brandt says.
“No, I want to.”