TV and film collide on a serial murder case with the LAPD and a detective turned screenwriter. 4,813 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jim Brandt was too old for this shit. He should be home in bed with his wife, not stuck in a car on an LAPD stakeout. Detective Dana Hansen sat in the passenger seat, sensitive to his every move. They both looked out the windshield of the Ford Crown Victoria to the unimpressive apartment building across the street.
The cameraman directly behind her broke the silence. “I need something white,” he said. “You got anything white?”
“You need something white?” Hansen asked. She was petite, and the cameraman could only see her crown of dark hair over the seat’s headrest.
“Yeah, white, to color balance the camera.”
“Brandt, you got anything white?”
“No,” Brandt said. “Just everybody don’t move around so much. Keep your eyes peeled.”
The car fell silent. Brandt worked the kinks from his neck. Stakeouts were bad enough with only two people confined in a car for hours, listening to each other’s grumbling intestines and breathing air scented with sweat, hamburger grease, and farts. But a stakeout with four people was impossible. He blamed the show, the goddamned Manhunt show. The brass downtown thought a network reality program was the perfect opportunity to show the progress the LAPD had made since the dark days of Rampart and Rodney King.
At first Brandt was flattered to lead the Task Force investigating the murders of four beautiful actresses, crimes that had drawn the kind of media attention the city hadn’t seen since O.J. Simpson. Bringing the killer dubbed the Starlet Stalker to justice could be the last case he solves. Retirement was no longer a nameless stranger he would meet at some indeterminate point in the future. It was knocking on his door.
Brandt had worked celebrity cases before. But the world of television and movies had existed apart from his reality, like a magical cloud city floating over Los Angeles, never out of sight but forever out of reach. Since his twice-weekly appearances on Manhunt had begun, however, strangers smiled at him with unnerving familiarity. At first he thought they were connected to some past investigation, but when they asked for his autograph or snapped a selfie, he knew they had seen him on television.
“Dj’you know DuPont owns the color white?” Denny Roach, the executive producer and creator of Manhunt, asked in his thick Australian accent.
“The hell you say.”
“It’s fair dinkum. They own all the titanium mines and titanium is what they make the color white out of. White paint, white toothpaste, white paper — they get a cut of it all on account of they own all the titanium.”
“Who owns purple?” continued the cameraman. “If I could own a color, it’d be purple. What do they use to make all the purple stuff from? Maybe I could buy up those mines.”
“I’d want to own red,” volunteered Hansen. “Not that I like red all that much, but it’s used a lot of places.”
Brandt glared at her.
Denny Roach and a rotating cast of camera operators had shadowed them like sucker fish since the body of the second victim had been found three weeks ago. Already a smash hit in Roach’s native Australia, the American incarnation of Manhunt had been looking for a serial killer to showcase, and the Stalker’s beautiful victims had propelled the show to ratings gold with an average weekly viewership rivaling that of the NBA playoffs or the Oscars.
Down the block, headlights drew everyone’s attention. A red SUV parked in front of the Twin Palms apartment building. Its headlights blinked off. A man — white, mid-twenties, average height, with dark hair — hopped out and remote-locked the doors. Hansen studied him through binoculars. Behind her, the cameraman fitted a Sony Hi-Def camera to his shoulder, a greenish night-vision image filling the eyepiece.
Please let this be the end, Brandt thought. Let this punk, this boyfriend with a history of violence, be the sick killer who had already taken four lives. Let him be the one, so the killing can stop and the case closed. Then the Manhunt crew can move on to complicate some other homicide detective’s life.
“That’s him,” Hansen whispered.
“Move in,” Brandt said into his radio, then exited the car.
Hector Landry, the white male, stood before the building’s security gate, fumbling with his keys. A light flooded across him.
“Police, turn around slowly.”
“Hey, hey, don’t shoot,” Landry stammered, dropping the keys and raising his hands.
Hansen pressed him back into the building’s entry gate and patted him down. Landry squinted at the blinding mini-spot fixed to the camera, unable to see the big man who carried it or the shorter man beside him. Beyond them, however, he could make out a half-dozen figures dressed in black tactical gear, the light glinting off the barrels of their Heckler & Koch MP5 rifles.
“Whoa, fuck, that thing on?" Landry said, pointing to the camera. “Fuck, am I gonna be on TV?”
“Not if you keep saying fuck, mate,” replied Denny Roach, though it came out fook mite.
“Hey, I know you. You’re that…from that show…the Manhunt show. Shit.”
“He’s clean,” Hansen said.
Brandt motioned for the SWAT team to lower their weapons, then holstered his own Smith & Wesson hammerless .357 and stepped forward into Landry’s personal space. “Where you been, Hector?” Brandt asked. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I’ve been out of town. What’s this about, man? Wait… are you? No way. Is this about the Stalker? You don’t think that I–”
“Young actresses start disappearing, we start asking questions,” Brandt continued. “You’re Sharla Fontaine’s jealous boyfriend. The one with a record and a bad temper. The one who did 18 months for cutting a security guard.”
“That was a long time ago,” Landry stammered, then turned to the camera and added for the benefit of the Manhunt audience. “Don’t believe this shit…I mean this stuff… they’re saying. I didn’t do nothing.”
Brandt studied the man’s face and knew this punk was not the Starlet Stalker. This was not the ending he had hoped for, but he let Hansen play her part just the same.
“You love her,” Hansen said manipulatively. “You see her losing out time and again to other actresses. You want to help her. Get rid of the competition. I understand that. Maybe you thought you could even the odds. Get your girl that big career-making part.”
“No, it’s not like that at all,” Landry replied. “Sure it’s been hard for her, but she got a part today. A movie for Lifetime. It’s a good part, too. If it goes to series, she’ll be a regular. I came over to celebrate.”
Brandt traded concerned looks with Hansen, giving a nice dramatic pause for the Manhunt camera. He reached past Landry to the security intercom and punched in Sharla Fontaine’s code. The line rang over the cheap speaker, then clicked to an answering machine: “Hi, please leave a message after the tone,” a smoky voice said. “And if this is about an audition, you can reach me on my cell at…”
“That’s odd,” Landry said. “She texted me like just an hour ago.”
Brandt’s chiseled features locked into a tense grimace.
“You stay here with him,” Brandt told Hansen.
“Cuffing a suspect in this situation is just a precaution,” she said to the camera.
“What? Who are you talking to?” Landry asked, confused.
“Shut up,” Roach hissed. “You’re not even in this shot.”
Brandt unlocked the security gate and entered the central courtyard, followed by two SWAT officers. Denny Roach and the cameraman stayed close behind. “Could be nothing,” Brandt said softly to the camera. “Maybe she’s a deep sleeper.”
“If she’s in the shower,” Roach whispered to the cameraman, “go ahead and shoot the full frontal. We’ll blur the naughty bits in post.”
The camera light created a glowing bubble around Brandt and the SWAT officers as they ascended the exterior stairs to the second floor landing and proceeded to the door marked #15. Brandt knocked firmly. No answer. He tried the knob. It turned and he pushed the door open. The apartment was dark. The SWAT officers swept the scene.
Finally, the cameraman entered. His mini-spot flooded the room with light, startling something in a far corner. A shadow darted across the room knocking a guitar to the floor with a minor-chord thud. The mini-spot followed the frightened cat to the dark puddle where it had been feeding. The blood formed a black mirror reflecting the lifeless face of Sharla Fontaine.
“Jesus Christ,” Roach sighed, then whispered to the cameraman. “Get lots of close ups.” He knew the gore must be blurred-out for American network broadcast, but wanted the raw footage for the already planned Manhunt: Uncensored DVD.
“Stay back. Don’t touch anything,” Brandt commanded.
He crossed to the kitchen, careful where he stepped, and knelt beside the body, close enough to check for a pulse, but not so close as to get blood on his Armani Exchange blazer. He noted jagged cuts around the woman’s empty eye sockets.
Brandt cleared the rest of the apartment, then exited, leaving Denny Roach and the lumbering cameraman to shoot their B-roll through the open door. He looked over the railing to Hansen and said softly so as not to wake the neighbors, “Call it in. 187 our location. Respond EMS and ME. Use your cell. I don’t want this over the air.”
Hector Landry, worried, asked, “What’s a 187?”
Police cruisers would be here in minutes to secure the area. The medical examiner would pronounce within the hour, but crime scene technicians would be gathering evidence the rest of the night and well into the morning. The press and paparazzi would swarm once word leaked out… and it always leaked out. Brandt pulled out his cell phone and texted his wife that he would not be home any time soon. On the kitchen table where Sharla Fontaine last sat rested a cup of tea and a dog-eared script titled Blind Justice.
Beneath the title was a list of writers, one familiar to Brandt.
“Nick Chapel,” he muttered.
“Welcome to the Los Angeles International Airport,” a recorded voice droned over crackling speakers. “Parking is for loading and unloading only.”
Where the hell is she?
I pull a photo out of my pocket to study a group of high-school drama students. Off to the left is Megan Davies. She looks all of 14, with braces, a dorky haircut, and a fuzzy sweater. Nothing special, but my college-roommate-turned-drama-teacher insists she has the looks, smarts, and talent to go the distance.
It’s my job to see that she doesn’t.
I will tell her the surest way into show business is to be born a Coppola, write for the Harvard Lampoon, or have a rich uncle in the industry. The siren song of Hollywood lures them from across the country. For a lucky few, fame and fortune greet them, but the rest spend years, even decades, knocking on a door that never opens as their youth fades and prospects dim. I promised Megan’s parents to show their daughter the merciless side of Hollywood so she’d come running back to them within a week. And so I wait beside my car, where a parking officer now stands, citation pad in hand.
“You’re not supposed to leave your car.”
“I’m very sorry, officer,” I reply, fishing out my LAPD-retired identification from my wallet.
She studies the card, then looks at me again. “Little young to be retired, aren’t you, Mr. Chapel?”
“I found another job, but still consult now and then.”
She hands the card back to me and nods at my Mustang. “Stay by your car. Be a shame to tow such a nice ride. What is this, a ‘66?
She walks on and I slide it back in my wallet, between my Black Amex and my Writer’s Guild of America ID.
I start to construct her backstory in my head, a screenwriter’s reflex of using real people to embellish whatever mystery-drama-comedy I’m crafting, hoping the spark of reality will make even the strangest tale plausible.
“Uncle Nick,” a voice calls out.
I check my photo of Megan Davies, then the woman walking toward me, then the photo again. The teenager morphs from one into the other. The braces are gone, the hair casually styled, and the fuzzy sweater replaced by a clingy top. It’s her all right, all grown up. She smiles the same wide toothy grin that made Julia Roberts a star.
She drops her roller luggage and leans into the convertible. Her jeans ride down, giving me a nice view of the yin-yang tattoo just above her ass-crack.
“Wow, is this your car?” she gushes.
“Yes, it’s…hi. Did you have a nice…let me get your…”
“I can’t believe I’m in L.A.” she exclaims, then hugs me.
“Hold on,” I stammer. “We could get arrested. Parking is for loading and unloading only.”
She stepped back as I hoisted her bags into the back seat.
“I tried looking you up on IMDB and didn’t find anything recent.”
“Most of my stuff isn’t listed there,” I explain. “I’m kind of a specialist: a script doctor. They don’t have a credit for that.”
“What’s a script doctor?”
“When there are problems with a script and the writer can’t fix them, they call me in to do it. I fix broken stories. Script Doctor. For instance, on a movie I just rewrote, the original ending had the hero leave the woman behind. She marries the wrong guy.”
“The writer was going for a neo-realist vibe. That shit may have worked back in the 90’s, but not now. Now we give people what they want, not what they might need, and we certainly don’t fuck with their minds. Sorry, mess with their minds.”
“It’s okay. I say fuck a lot. So what are you working on now?”
“Nothing really. Just finished a bunch of stuff. Did a dialogue polish. Re-broke a third act. I get a lot of cop dramas because I was on the force.”
He doesn’t tell her that movies, like investigations, can run off the rails. What looked so promising on the pages of a script can feel ridiculous on a soundstage. The smallest thing can break the delicate make-believe spell the writer, director, and actors labor to cast. An ill-fitting costume, a cheap prop, a tongue-twisting line of dialogue, or a dimple of ass fat. It is the script-doctor’s job to make everyone believe again.
“And let me tell you, the movie business makes the police business look easy. You sure you want to get into this racket?”
“I figure I’ll give it six months,” she says. “If I’m not rich and famous by then, I’ll try modeling.”
My cell ringtone plays the theme from one of my movies Touch Of Evil.
“Nick, it’s Jim. You busy?”
“Just picking up someone from the airport.”
“I’m working a case in Brentwood. Can you stop by? I’m on Gorham, behind the Whole Foods. Just follow the crime scene tape.”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
I wonder who has been killed. Jim heads the Starlet Stalker Task Force and whoever the victim was, he didn’t want to say on an open line. Visiting a crime scene was not on the list of the tourist attractions I’d planned to show Megan, but maybe a glimpse of the dark side of fame is just the discouragement she needs. She could be the real deal. Hollywood may grab her and not let go until it’s through with her. I should knock her unconscious and throw her on the next flight north, or drag her kicking and screaming to Union Station and toss her on a train. Anything to prevent the inevitable realization that the dream factory isn’t interested in her dreams.
“Cool,” Megan says. “Brentwood, that’s where OJ lived. We read about him in history class.”
I wince and hope it looks like a smile.
Brandt was right: no one could miss this crime scene. A dozen officers hold more than a hundred people behind the tape. Helicopters thump overhead. Off to one side, hawkers shout, “Get your Manhunt T-shirt, right here! Official merchandise!” I elbow my way through the crowd. A uniform checks my ID and waves me forward.
“It’s not pretty,” he says.
“It never is.”
“Just fair warning, you being a civilian and all.”
I smile, but the jibe hurts. I am no longer part of the thin blue line. It had been six years since I’d turned in my shield, but the sense of banishment had never fully faded.
I jog up the stairs to the building vestibule and up to the second floor landing. Brandt sticks his head out the door to apartment 15.
“Nick, in here.”
I follow him into the apartment and take a look around. There’s a body on the kitchen floor. The best-looking thing in the room is Brandt’s tailored suit.
“You’re looking good,” I say. “What is that, ‘Mani?”
“Yeah, courtesy of the Manhunt show. The department saw how I looked in the early episodes and thought I should convey a better image. Bloomingdale’s supplies my wardrobe for an end credit.”
“I hope you get to keep them.”
“That’s in my contract.”
“So the body on the kitchen floor?” I ask with a nod to an LAPD photographer documenting a female victim.
“The stage name Sharla Fontaine ring a bell? Real name’s Charlene Spurlock.”
“Nothing,” I reply, taking a close look at a headshot pinned to the wall. Deep violet eyes stare back at me. “Pretty.”
He takes me by the elbow, guiding my steps around the numbered crime scene markers scattered across the living room beside drops of blood. In the kitchen, two guys dressed in ME whites spread a body bag out on a clean section of linoleum.
“Jesus,” I wince. “He cut her eyes out. So this Starlet Stalker, he’s a collector?”
“Yes, but that’s just between us, Nick.”
“Right. You, me, and the Manhunt audience. Where’s your Aussie sidekick?”
“He left an hour ago to cut a new promo for tonight’s show,” Brandt replies.
The ME guys set the body onto the open bag, then zip it shut. They roll Sharla Fontaine on a gurney out of her apartment for the last time.
“What is this… five?” I ask. Brandt nods. “Always the eyes?”
“No,” he says. “Different every time.”
“Well, I’ve never seen her before.”
Brand hands me a dog-eared script. “She was set to star in the latest Nick Chapel opus. It’s about a DA who can’t see, so his other senses are super strong. Get it?”
I wrinkle my nose. “It was a rewrite. I’ve been off this for three weeks. And writers are never involved in casting.”
The crime scene photographer exits, leaving Brandt and me alone.
“This show, this damned show,” he fumes. “The tenth floor honchos thought it would be such a good idea. Good PR for the department. You know they still talk about Adam-12 and Dragnet as high points in the LAPD’s image. Christ. The brass forgot those shows were scripted so the bad guy was caught at the end of every episode. The investigation didn’t drag out week after week as the bodies piled up.”
“You catching some heat?”
He nods. “Downtown is now worried the show will have a negative effect. That we’re telling a whole new generation of killers you really can get away with murder. Nick, I could use some help on this.”
“They must be throwing manpower at you.”
“Yeah, we’re a task force now, based out of the West LA Precinct. But every move we make creates a circus outside. All that’s missing are jugglers and a fat lady. What I’m saying is, I need someone on the outside, someone who knows the business.”
“Both of them — the cop business and the Hollywood business. Review the files. Check my math. You have a great eye for detail. What’s your going rate?”
“Two hundred thousand,” I say without hesitation.
“Jesus, two hundred-K a year?”
“Two hundred-K a week. I know, it’s crazy, but my agent doubled my rate when my last feature re-write earned three hundred million worldwide.”
Brandt’s mouth moves, but no words come out.
“Well, we can’t match that,” he finally says, regaining composure.
I shake my head. “Even if you could, Jim, you know I burned out on the job. I’m happy solving fake crimes in less than two hours.”
Brandt and I were an effective team, closing a respectable percentage of our cases, but I knew the numbers would eventually catch up to us. One day I was tossed the plum off-hours gig of consulting for the ABC series Robbery Homicide. I worked with the writer-producers, reviewing each script for technical accuracy, and coached the actors on how to handle a gun and cuff a perp.
The extra money from the show was nice, but the real allure was something less tangible; a feeling I welcomed every time I drove onto the studio lot, and missed each time I left it for a crime scene. Standing over a body, homicide detectives are tasked with finding the killer and restoring order to the chaos of crime. Sometimes we succeed, but all too often we fail, and every unsolved case takes a hammer to the social order we’re sworn to uphold. I finally found that order in the most unlikely of places; the dark confines of a soundstage where every actor, set, and prop has been carefully planned, and any imperfection can be remedied with a second take, or fixed in post-production. Soon I was writing stories for the series. By the second season, I had turned in my badge to become a writer-producer. I cannot imagine returning to the chaos of a real murder, The weariness dissipates and he stands taller, once again the hard-ass who has little use for anyone that stands between him and conviction.
“Worth a shot. Thanks for stopping by, Nick.”
He walks me out of the apartment, saying nothing more and in doing so telling me all I need to know. I shake his hand and veer off to the left as he approaches a stand of microphones manned by an officer from the department’s Media Relations Division. The crowd has compressed itself into a tight circle around them. Camera operators jockey for the best position. Journalists shout questions that Brandt ignores. I don’t stick around for his comments. I’ve heard them all before, even said them a few times. He would announce that another victim has been killed and the investigation is proceeding and all the resources of the LAPD are dedicated to finding the killer and bringing him to justice.
I return to the car where Megan leans back in the passenger seat, letting purple jacaranda blossoms fall across her face.
“What happened?” she asks as I get in.
“I had to lie to a friend. He wanted my help on his case.”
“They said a young woman was murdered,” she says quietly. “I think you should help your friend.”
“It’s complicated. You never know where an investigation will lead, but it’s never anyplace you want to go.”
Her mouth draws tight. In the small-town world she comes from, the death of one human being is a loss to everyone. Not so in Los Angeles, where it’s treated as primetime entertainment.
“The girl who was killed, was she pretty?”
“Yes,” I reply. “And now she always will be.”
The car phone rings and my agent, Mel Sheinberg, is calling. “Nick, there’s a meltdown over at Paramount.”
After a three-hour meeting at the studio, I ask the executive, “Do we have a verbal agreement?”
“We do, and Business Affairs has been notified.”
“Terrific, then I’ll need a script, a shooting schedule, and a DVD of the original French film.”
“I’ll have them messengered over to your place.”
“Great,” I smile. We shake hands, an ancient form of contract that I hope still means something to him. “I look forward to working with you, but right now, I must be off.”
And that’s when I hear the TV in the reception area blast a news alert. “KNBC has learned there are breaking developments in the Starlet Stalker investigation. A new player is joining the LAPD task force. We’ll have more on who this mystery man is, after the break.”
I find a chair and lean forward, curious who Brandt had succeeded in enlisting to his cause. The motion graphics swirl and tilt, coming to rest on a picture of me, standing in front of the Twin Palms apartments, handing my ID to a uniformed officer. The image freezes as I glance over my shoulder, as though being followed. Digital question marks twirl around me in 3D space.
“Shit,” I curse the television. “Shit, shit, shit.”
A writer in Hollywood can get away with many things: booze, drugs, women, even plagiarism. There are a few things, however, that writers can’t do: join the Communist Party, criticize Israel, or get caught up in a murder investigation. The stink of controversy can ruin a career. If a writer can’t control his personal life, how can he possibly control the entire universe of a movie?
A TV reporter is standing before the Twin Palms Apartments in Brentwood. “I have learned the LAPD has brought in a special consultant on the Starlet Stalker case, calling into question the progress being made by lead investigator James Brandt. We have also confirmed the identity of the victim. She is Sharla Fontaine who last appeared, ironically enough, as a murdered nurse in the low budget thriller Psych Ward. This is the fifth Stalker victim in as many months.” The small screen fills with photos of each victim. “The case has gripped the nation as a result of the Manhunt show, which can be seen at 8 p.m. this evening on NBC.”
“What about this new mystery consultant?” the anchor asks.
“He is none other than A-list Hollywood screenwriter Nick Chapel.”
“Did you say a screenwriter?”
“That’s right, but Nick Chapel is a former LAPD detective and, in fact, was Detective Jim Brandt’s partner.”
“Well, this case has certainly taken more twists and turns than a Hollywood movie. I guess we will have to tune in tonight for Manhunt at 8 pm on NBC and learn the whole story.”
I turn the television off, stand, and pace, stopping now and then to smack my head. This must be fixed before Paramount has second thoughts about hiring me. I call Brandt, but only reach his voice mail. “Jim, this is Nick,” I say. “What the hell, man?”
I return to the car and leave the lot, heading west toward home. Megan asks why I’m so quiet and I point to the massive digital billboard at the busy intersection of Highland and Melrose. Blinding pixels spell out the Manhunt logo. The image shifts to a digitally enhanced photo of Brandt and me exiting the apartment building on Gorham. Blood splatters the screen, spelling in dripping letters “Who is this man? Find out tonight on Manhunt!”
“Hey, that’s you,” she says. “But I thought you weren’t involved.”
“Neither did I.”
Someone high in the food chain is behind this. This sort of synergistic cross-promotion meant corporate involving not only NBC’s local affiliate but the conglomerate’s sister networks and outdoor advertising division. We count three more digital billboards on the drive back to Westwood that use my animated image to tease tonight’s Manhunt show. Outside my condo tower in Westwood, a scrum of reporters, photographers, and TV news vans fill the entry plaza and follows me around the corner to the garage entrance. Most are shut outside the security gate, but a fast paparazzo and one cameraman slide in before the gate closes completely. In my rearview mirror, I can see them hustle down the ramp. My tires squeal as I descend two levels and park beside my Porsche Cayenne. I kill the engine, raise the convertible top, and look Megan n the eyes.
“Walk straight to the elevators,” I tell her. “Don’t look at the cameras. Don’t say anything. Ignore their questions.”
We get out of the car and walk toward the elevator as the photographer approaches. We reach the elevator and I press the call button. Standing close to the doors so the photographer can only shoot the back of our heads, we wait. As the doors open, the videographer arrives. He’s smart enough to hang back and grab a wide shot of Megan and I entering the elevator. As the doors close, Megan glances back and smiles. The elevator carries us aloft.
“You smiled at the camera,” I say.
“Yes, you did. You’ll see. It’ll be on TV tonight.”
Television Package for Emmy Season