LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel is consulted on a serial murder case. 2,272 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The elevator doors open at the lobby revealing Russell, the day man on the front desk.
“Mr. Chapel, are you okay?” he asks. “I caught the whole thing on the security cameras. Should I call the cops?”
“I’m fine, Russell. No need for the police, but don’t open the garage for them. Maybe they’ll miss their deadline.”
Finally, I let out a long sigh. I am home and safe behind metal gates, doors with biometric key card locks, and Russell with his security monitors and taser. With each passing floor, I feel cleaner and safer, high above the dirt, poverty, illegal-immigrant desperation, multi-cultural conflict, gangbanging violence, and star-struck disillusionment of the city below.
The doors slide open, and we are greeted by a reproduction Louis XIV side table topped with a vibrant bouquet of bird-of-paradise. There are only two condos on this level and Lee Chang stands outside the open door to my unit, no doubt having watched the entire affair on the security system inside. He’s not much older than my college roommate’s daughter, Megan Davies, but already a veteran of the industry. Three months as my assistant will do that to a person. Gone is the boy band haircut and saggy skateboard jeans he wore to his interview, replaced by dressy-casual attire from the vintage stores on Melrose. Right now he is bringing me up to speed with his usual efficiency.
“Housekeeping has the guest room all set up for Megan. Mel called about a deal at Paramount. Mrs. Henderson from next door is threatening to take you before the tenants’ board because of all the paparazzi outside. And you’re all over the news. The landline’s been ringing off the hook. Channel 4, Channel 7, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Tonight. I’m letting the machine pick up. What the hell happened?”
We enter the condo and I shrug off my jacket. Straight ahead, the living room beckons with its sleek ensemble of Danish Modern furniture. Off to the right, a dining set by Hans Wegner rests before glass doors leading to a generous balcony. Straight ahead, double doors lead to my office, and to the left is the hallway to the bedrooms. Every stick of furniture and piece of art has been carefully selected, and I’m pleased at the effect it has on Megan, who pauses to take in the Los Angeles view. I descend into the sunken living room, flop on the couch, and reach for the remote.
Megan settles onto one of the Finn Juhl side chairs. My cell phone rings and I plug it into the dock on the side table. As Lee returns with a tray of drinks, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt’s face fills the television screen, pushing aside the CNN coverage. He sits in a small office at a desk crowded with papers.
“Nick, I got your message,” he says. “I don’t know what the hell is going on with the promos for the TV reality show. I had nothing to do with this.”
“Jim, I’m on half the digital billboards north of Pico. You have to make this go away.”
“Welcome to my world.”
“I don’t want to be part of your world, remember? I left it behind. Now can you take care of this?”
“I suppose I could talk to Denny Roach, the executive producer of Manhunt. Say something on tonight’s show.”
He let the statement hang a moment, his meaning clear. I approach the camera mounted onto the television so my face will fill his computer screen. “I’m not getting involved in this.”
“Just take a look at the files. Give me a fresh perspective on these starlet murders, and I’ll do what I can to make all this bullshit go away.”
“Your office, tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll see you at eight.”
“I’ll be there at ten.”
I disconnect the phone and tell myself it will just be one meeting with my ex-LAPD partner. I’ll be in and out of the West LA Precinct in an hour, maybe two. I call my agent Mel, explain the situation, and tell him to forward any media inquiries to my publicist. Then I call Beverly Waxman, my publicist, and fill her in, agreeing to her usual retainer of four grand for the month. Just like that, my life returns to what passes for normal for a screenwriter.
Megan, Lee, and I order take out from Westwood Thai. A messenger arrives with a DVD, script and shooting schedule. I call Ross Cornell and suggest he carry on filming the chase scene scheduled for the rest of the week. That will give me through the weekend to review the script and write new scenes to be filmed next week.
Exhausted after such an eventful day, Megan drifts off to the guest room. Lee leaves for his night class on digital filmmaking at UCLA Extension. I settle onto the couch to catch the latest exciting episode of Manhunt.
They say this is a second golden age of television, but I don’t believe it. Sure, there are classy period dramas on HBO and Netflix, and intelligent quirky series on basic cable, but for every one of them there’s an America’s Ugliest Baby or Robots vs. Super Models on the old broadcast networks. Reality shows are cheap to produce and typically lure in as many viewers as the more expensive soap operas and police procedurals. Every once in a while one of these programs goes ballistic, like American Idol, or The Voice, or Manhunt.
There is nothing real about a reality show and Manhunt is no exception. Every element has been designed for effect, from the thrust stage surrounded by a live studio audience, to the computer-controlled lights that swoop and swirl over the crowd as if searching for a killer. Giant high-def screens, flashing the Manhunt logo, serve as a backdrop. An electro-synth score thumps the show’s theme, then settles into a moody beat as host Denny Roach takes the stage to thunderous applause.
Part ringmaster, part revival preacher, Roach delivers the shocking news everyone already knows: the Starlet Stalker has struck again. He plays the crowd, feeding off their shock and sorrow, then introduces a tribute-montage to Sharla Fontaine set to a house-dance version of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The Manhunt dancers take the stage.
The whole show is a mechanical marvel of human catnip, asking questions then teasing shocking answers to be revealed after the next commercial break. The Stalker in L.A. isn’t the only killer the show tracks. In Cleveland, the South Side Strangler has claimed a fourth prostitute, and in Chicago, another teen was killed in the projects. But Manhunt doesn’t dominate its time-slot because of fallen women and black teens, and most of the show is dedicated to the Stalker and his beautiful white prey. Finally, the climax I have been waiting for arrives.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the real manhunter, Det. Jim Brandt,” shouts Roach.
Lights swirl, the crowd cheers, and the Manhunt dancers set two chairs on the stage. The high-def panels float apart as Brandt strolls on stage, looking sharp in a Brioni ensemble. Roach and Brandt take their seats. The crowd quiets and the lights dim.
“Detective, it’s been five weeks now,” Denny continues. “Are we any closer to capturing the Starlet Stalker?”
“Well, Denny, this case remains the LAPD’s highest priority and we have brought the entire resources of the department to bear to find this killer.”
“Yes, all the resources of the department and then some,” Denny teases, pointing to a jumbo-tron splashed with a photo of me entering the Twin Palms apartments. “A new figure has entered the investigation. Tell us, Detective Brandt, who is this mystery man?”
“Well, Denny, I’m afraid the media got their facts wrong this time. That individual has nothing to do with the investigation. His name is Nick Chapel. He’s a screenwriter and former LAPD detective who used to be my partner.”
“So he has no involvement with the case?”
“None at all, Denny. He just stopped by to say hello. ”
Good, it’s done and I’m in the clear. A writer in Hollywood can get away with many things — booze, drugs, women, even plagiarism — but not get caught up in a murder investigation. The stink of controversy can ruin a career. I reach for the remote, but Brandt’s final words sting.
“He’s no longer a detective, just a civilian.”
Morning comes too quickly and I am in the office by six, studying the French sex thriller’s shooting schedule over a glass orange juice and bowl of oatmeal topped certified organic berries. The lives of screenwriters have come a long way since Mack Sennett locked his gagmen in a tower and listened at the door for the sound of typewriters clacking.
My sanctum sanctorum, just off the living room, offers a view of Westwood and the hills of Bel-Air through floor to ceiling windows. Bookshelves made of salvaged Honduras mahogany hold a library of classic screenplays, mysteries and crime fiction, and a decade’s worth of investigative and forensic research. I don’t really use the reference materials anymore, since the latest information is just a few computer clicks away, but the old-school quality of books, with their dusty pages and faded bindings, serve as a reminder that I m a proud link in the screenwriting chain that stretches back a hundred years.
Megan knocks on the door, looking far too perfect for this early in the morning.
“Good morning,” I say. “I thought your audition wasn’t until eleven.”
“It is,” she replies. “Mr. Cornell is sending a town car to pick me up. I couldn’t sleep. I’m too nervous. What do you think of this blouse?”
“It’ll be fine.” I say. “You do realize this is not how this normally works, right? Most aspiring actors don’t get an audition for a major movie their first day in town. They work for years to get an audition. They do plays and showcases in crummy little theaters in North Hollywood hoping a casting director will notice them. They take any job they can find — extra work, local commercials, print ads, voice work, soft porn, convention showgirl — anything to build up a reel.”
“What’s a reel?”
“See, you don’t even know what a reel is. It’s clips of all the work you’ve done that shows the range of characters you can play.”
“I don’t have one of those.”
“Exactly. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t get your hopes too high. Ross Cornell may have ulterior motives. Maybe he thinks giving you an audition will make me happy and I’ll do a better job on his script. Maybe something else.”
“Oh, you mean he wants to get in my panties.”
“I’m not saying that’s the case, but it’s been known to happen in this business.”
She walks up to my desk and puts both hands on it, leaning in with a smile. “You’re sweet,” she says. “But I’ve been dealing with men like Ross Cornell since I was fourteen. I can handle him. Besides, I don’t wear panties.”
It’s a short drive to the West Los Angeles Precinct. The Homicide Division is based downtown, on the fifth floor of the new Police Administration Building, but given that every Starlet Stalker victim had been found on the west side of town, Brandt moved the task force to temporary digs in the West LA Bureau.
I park the Cayenne on Butler Avenue just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, and walk to the tile-walled entry designed to discourage crazies from driving a car through the front door. Inside, the place hasn’t changed much since I had started there as a rookie, fresh out of the Academy. The same institutional furniture rests on the same worn tile floor.
Brandt meets me in the lobby and walks me upstairs, pointing out the new anti-terrorism bureau and the high-tech communications center put in place during the recent push for statistics-based policing. In the detectives’ bullpen, little had changed. The computers are smaller, but the desks just as cluttered. Detectives work the phones and consult bulletin boards filled with maps of the crime-scene locations and information about each victim.
A crew from Manhunt shoots B-roll of these day-players in the Starlet Stalker drama. One camerawoman films Brandt’s partner at her desk. Denny Roach hovers nearby, offering energetic stage direction. He is shorter than he appears on TV, and wiry thin. “That’s great, mate,” the Australian oozes. “Just don’t look at the camera. Pretend we’re not here.”
Brandt leads me to a conference room, but not before Denny catches sight of us. He weaves his way through the bullpen of desks to meet us at the door.
“Nick, this is Denny Roach, producer of Manhunt. Denny, Nick Chapel.”
“Executive producer, co-creator, and host,” Roach corrects, then pumps my hand with both of his. “Great to meet you, mate, and no worries about the show the other night. Damn good publicity for you, aye?”
“I’m a writer; I don’t want publicity,” I reply, retrieving my hand. “If I wanted publicity, I’d become a director… or an executive producer.”
“So true, mate, so true. So just dropping by to say hi again, are we?”
“Anything here we should be getting on tape, then?”
“If there is, you’ll be the first to know,” Brandt replies.
Brandt ushers me into the windowless conference room and closes the door behind us. Roach lingers for a moment just outside the room’s glass wall. Something about his presence disturbs me. Eventually, he returns to the activity in the bullpen, but not without shooting glances over his shoulder in our direction. Brandt closes the vertical blinds, blocking his view. I sit at the table before stacks of manila files.
“What a charming man,” I smile wryly.
“He’s an acquired taste.”
“Yeah, like arsenic, or rat poison.”
Part One. Part Three tomorrow