A celebrity dead pool puts this deeply in debt showbiz agent on tilt. 2,371 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood agent Jason Axelman sat down at his dining room table and did the math. His client, Louie Morales, had left at the beginning of the year, taking with him his show, his production company, and the two other shows his company had on FOX. That was about two million a year in billings. Jason’s divorce from Robin had cost him a million and a half plus thirty five thousand a month in alimony and child support. That weekend in Vegas, an attempt to recoup some of these losses, ended up costing him another half million. The consolidated bank loan — to cover the mortgage, the car payments, the shrink, the gardener, the grocery bills, even the flowers he sent the few clients he had left when they won something — was fifty thousand, due the first of every month. Perhaps Wells Fargo could be persuaded to accept a partial payment, he thought as he bit into an apple. Perhaps Israel and Palestine would declare peace in the next month. Anything, he felt, was possible.
But not this. He was broke. Broke the way a junkie is hooked, and Jason couldn’t get out of it. He had lived well, the bottom had fallen out, and there was no reserve. The agency was probably only weeks away from asking him to leave. And he would have to sell the house. He had fought for that house in the divorce. A house in Bel-Air had once seemed to mean something. When he was a young agent, his mentor Abe Saperstein had told him, “An agent must never lose his house.” Abe was dead now; he’d never know.
Jason walked into the living room and sprawled out oon one of his two matching chocolate leather sofas, designer pieces that would have been repossessed had it not been for the bank loan. He picked up the remote, clicked it, and Turner Classic Movies appeared on the 55-inch television screen.
“…was one of Hitchcock’s major successes of the fifties,” said the TV host. “Much of the credit for that success is given to playwright Fredrick Knott who devised the devilishly clever plot that keeps audiences guessing right up to the final moments of the film.”
Jason looked at the actor’s thick black hair and wondered if it had been cosmetically restored. The agent’s had begun to thin over the past year.
“And so here, without further ado, Turner Classic Movies presents Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder.”
The Warner Bros. logo appeared on the screen and Jason found himself completely caught up in the film. Had he seen if before? He must have, but somehow today, with nothing but his imminent doom on his mind, it seemed fresh and engaging, the perfect tonic.
Ray Milland engages a thug to murder his wife Grace Kelly because she is in love with another man and therefore may leave him and take away all her money. Milland devises a foolproof plan that revolves around a key to their apartment, but Kelly upsets things by managing to murder the thug in self-defense. Milland then quickly rearranges vital pieces of evidence and makes it look like Kelly was plotting to murder the thug in the first place. Milland had been extraordinarily clever in the film, getting the extra key made for the killer, making sure he would be out of the apartment with his wife’s lover when the murder occurred. And if Milland had just held on to the key, he’d never have been caught. That’s what you had to do in life and in murder. Think of everything.
Jason ate another apple as he stared out the window. Watching the film had relaxed him. That night, for the first time in a month, he slept peacefully.
Three days later, on a Saturday morning, Jason rose at five a.m., showered, and made himself a thermos of coffee. He drove from Bel-Air to the end of a road in Pacific Palisades and found an unobtrusive parking spot. Sinking down in the seat, his sunglasses in place, he would wait as long as it took.
Surprisingly, it did not take long.
The sparsely inhabited road lined with trees and homes was quiet as the sun rose. But at six thirty the gate of the Spanish house in the middle of the block swung opened and a figure appeared with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel on a leash. She was shrouded in a large gray parka with a hood and sweat pants, but if you squinted and looked hard, you could see that Laura Doran was walking her dog.
Once Laura Doran’s beauty had made her Hollywood’s Helen Of Troy, a Southern California beach goddess whose face had launched a thousand Frisbees. Discovered in Long Beach, she became a star when Douglas Sirk cast her as the ghostly first wife of Henry Fonda in the 1959 romantic thriller Apparition. Her silver blond hair and throaty voice thrilled audiences and more roles followed quickly: Separate Bedrooms with Rock Hudson (she’d loved not being harassed on the set), Night Without Sleep with Robert Mitchum (well, who could blame her?), McConnell’s Army with Charlton Heston (no comment), and I Married A Spy with Maximilian Schell (if only they had invented Tic-Tacs earlier.) She’d kept working well into the seventies, through two bad marriages and one bankruptcy.
When Laura met Wade Hutchins in 1979, another marriage and retirement seemed like a good idea. Wade had been the star of CBS’s Saddle Tramp for seven years – and would go on to star in it for seven more – and he liked the idea of a woman waiting for him at home. Laura was fine with that, and the two were happy to stay home in the Palisades, do an occasional awards show appearance, and let the royalties roll in. “I’ve had mine, honey,” Laura liked to say when ET caught up with her on the Red Carpet.
Jason watched as Laura, now 83, walked down the street stiffly, her body awkward with age. Coming to the end of the block, she turned towards some bushes, walking into them with her dog. She reappeared two minutes later, walked back up the road and into her house.
Jason noted the times and her movements and then returned home. He came back the next morning at six to see Laura repeat the same walk. During the next week, he went to the street and watched Laura make her walk with her dog. By the time he got to the office, the adrenaline was pumping through his body from excitement about what he planned.
“You opening that window again, Axelman?” asked Sandy Bresler.
“Fresh air is good for you.”
“Axelman, we’re 34 stories up in a Century City tower. All we’re getting are airplane fumes from LAX.”
Gabby bastards, thought Jason, as he sat down at the conference table with his coffee. With their full rosters of clients his colleagues didn’t have to worry about holding onto to a job or meeting a mortgage payment. They didn’t have the burden of having to murder Laura Doran before the end of the year.
And Jason did have to do it by the end of the year or he couldn’t collect the two million dollars he needed so desperately.
The agency ran an annual death pool. The first twenty volunteers got to play. Each put up one hundred thousand dollars along with the name of the celebrity the agent thought would die before the end of the year. Then the names were thrown into a hat and everybody picked one. The tempercenters lived for the obituaries as Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled around and the stars fell one by one.
Jason had entered the pool this year right before everything collapsed for him, and had drawn Laura Doran. Now it was December 17th and he thought of her and only her day and night. A British agent was in the lead because he had drawn an Australian rock star who had overdosed in August on painkillers. Since then, no celeb was even in the hospital.
This was going to be easy, Jason told himself.
That night Jason did some Christmas shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue: a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress, a blond Raquel Welch wig, wrap-around Prada sunglasses, and low-heeled Louboutins. On the way out, he purchased Chanel makeup. Back home, he put on the dress and the accessories and looked at himself in the mirror. Ridiculous, he thought, but no worse than tranny hookers on Hollywood Blvd.
Jason called in sick the next day, put on the makeup and dressed himself in the costume. He left after ten am so he would not be seen by his neighbors. Jason went to a medical supply store and bought a half dozen pairs of latex gloves, and to an athletic gear store for a ski mask and Nike runners that were two sizes larger than he normally wore. All that mattered was the security camera recording the image of a middle-aged crossdresser.
Next, Jason walked into a hardware store and began to examine the kitchen knives in the display case. “Something I can help you with, miss?” asked the clerk.
“I’m looking for a knife,” replied Jason, mildly surprised to hear himself referred to as a woman. “A butcher knife.”
“If you’re going to be carving big cuts of meat, then you might want to start with this cleaver. Smashes right through bone and gristle with one stroke.”
Jason put his hand to his chest in what he thought played as a lady-like gesture. “Well, I’m not Sweeney Todd. I just need a good solid butcher knife.”
“You can’t go wrong with this 10-inch Dexter Russel,” said the clerk who pulled out a large curved knife with a thick handle. “Cuts right through any cartilage.”
“I’m looking for something more traditional. Just a straight blade and a black handle.”
The clerk paused. “Like you see in horror movies?” He reached into the display case. “Victorinox,” he said, handing the knife to Jason. “Classic.”
Later, at home, Jason stripped off his disguise, put it in a shopping bag, drove to a McDonald’s and stuffed it into an outdoor trash bin. Then he bought a cup of coffee and waited for the fast-food worker to come, as he did hourly, and empty the receptacle, taking Jason’s disguise along with the other garbage.
The agent couldn’t sleep that night. It had been possible, in the days before, to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Now he was hours away from the event itself, and it was hard for Jason to ignore the fact that he was going to kill someone. He went to the kitchen and made himself some cocoa and turned on Turner Classic Movies. Mrs. Miniver was on. Between the warm milk and Greer Garson winning World War II, he was calm as the first light of dawn appeared.
At five thirty, he drove to Laura’s area of the Palisades and parked a block and a half from her house. He moved quickly into the bushes where she always walked with her dog. He pulled some stray branches over him and knelt in a small area directly off the main path. Then he opened his leather bag. He pulled on the ski mask and latex gloves and finally grasped the large butcher knife in his right fist, the blade protruding out, ready to strike.
And then he waited. And waited.
Suddenly a rush of sound was followed by high-pitched chattering. Jason panicked before he realized who his adversary was. Squirrels.
Just as his heartbeat returned to some sort of normalcy, he heard the crunch of shoes on branches and the murmur of “Doggy, doggy.” The female figure in a large gray parka and sweatpants trundled past him with the little spaniel on a leash. Jason’s mouth was dry with fear; he was hyperventilating. As she leaned over, Jason sprang towards her and sank the butcher knife deep. There was a strangled cry as she fell forward. He stood paralyzed for a second, then stabbed her twice more. Not seeing her made it easier. Out of the side of his eye he saw the pet flee from the bushes and rush towards the road.
But Jason had no time for the dog. He put the mask, knife and gloves back in the bag and jogged to his car, as if he had been out running. But his hands were shaking so badly he could hardly turn on the ignition. Next stop was McDonald’s where he ordered an Egg McMuffin and, because he was ravenous after the murder, ordered another along with fries. Washing down the second sandwich with a cup of coffee, he watched the fast-food worker attendant make his garbage rounds and cart off the evidence of his very recent misdeed.
“You freezing us out again, Axelman?” asked Mark Livak, looking out the open window of the conference room.
“I’m hot,” Jason replied.
“Well sure,” said Sandy Bresler. “Look at those sweat stains under your armpits.”
“Holy shit!” interrupted Colin Tromans, looking at his IPhone.
“What’s up?” Bresler asked.
“Somebody died. One of the big ones.”
“Who?” asked Livak.
“I lost the damn death pool,” whined Tromans. “There was a murder this morning in the Palisades. Somebody killed Laura Doran’s maid. She was out walking the family dog and some mugger came up and stabbed her to death.”
Jason felt his entire body go cold.
Continued Tromans, “But the thing is the dog got away and ran out into the street and got run over by a moving van. Splat. Laura’s husband Wade Hutchins came out and saw the dog and dropped dead right there. Heart attack.”
Jason tried to form a sentence, but none would come.
“Hey!” exclaimed Livak. “I had Wade Hutchins! I win this year’s death pool!”
Bresler inquired, “How’s Laura doing?”
“Says here she’s fine,” replied Tromans. “Under sedation.”
Livak, his face still aglow from winning the two mil, shook his head in wonder. “Just goes to show you never know. One minute you’re fine and the next…”
“Hey!” screamed Bresler. “Jason just jumped out the fucking window!”